Stoke City are the visitors to Old Trafford this evening as United look to put together a fourth straight victory with Southampton’s third place coming increasingly within touching distance for Louis van Gaal’s side.
United’s emphatic victory over Hull City on Saturday was marred only by a hamstring injury suffered by Angel Di Maria, which will rule the Argentine out of tonight’s visit of Stoke. The manager described the victory – United’s third in a row – as our “best match of the season” and saw the Reds further strengthen their claim for a top four finish.
The game represented what could be a significant point in United’s season, with somewhat nervy victories over Arsenal and Crystal Palace behind them, Van Gaal will hope that Saturday’s convincing performance can act as a catalyst. The Reds controlled the game from the off with 76% of possession while creating 22 chances in the meantime. Marcos Rojo was a surprise return in defence as United switched to four at the back, while his centre-back partner Chris Smalling made strides to making up for his derby day blunder by opening the scoring early on.
There were plenty more positives to take as Wayne Rooney kept up his fine form as he arrowed in a low shot from the edge of the box from a Van Persie pass, before the Dutchman scored a spectacular strike of his own to round off the victory and go some way to silencing some of the critics – notably myself – who have questioned his role in the team. Perhaps it was the return of one of the world’s elite number nines on the bench making his return from a lengthy spell of injury that provided van Persie with the kick up the arse he dearly needed.
Falcao came on with 20 minutes left on the clock as his usual energetic and goal hungry self and came excruciatingly close to a scoring return after some unselfish play from Juan Mata, only for the Colombian to be denied on the line.
There was an immediate sense of panic as Di Maria left the field as the latest victim of the club’s injury plague, but with crisis came opportunity for Ander Herrera as he made his first United outing since the beginning of the Marouanne Fellaini revolution at The Hawthorns back in October. The Spaniard slotted back into a midfield diamond alongside Fellaini turning in a man of the match performance in the process. With Di Maria almost certain to miss the visit of Stoke, Herrera will again be given the opportunity to stake his claim.
Mark Hughes will be the second former Red who brings his side to Old Trafford in the space of four days with his side sitting in 12th with just a solitary victory from their previous six. The Potters were unlucky on Saturday not to earn a point at fellow mid-table strugglers Liverpool, who snatched a late victory at the death.
Hughes’ side do have the potential to cause United problems particularly in attack with pacey options in Bojan and former United man Mame Biram Diouf, while Jonathan Walters will provide a lot of the leg work. Injuries will keep Steve Sidwell and Glenn Whelan out of the side, with Charlie Adam likely to come in to partner N’Zonzi in the middle of the park.
It was Adam who handed Stoke a solitary victory over United since 1984 last season – another of endless unwanted records amounted during the short-lived David Moyes era.
With United now beginning to put together some form of momentum and coming off the back of perhaps their most complete performance, it’s important that some form of stability is maintained. Di Maria’s injury means that the manager’s hand will be forced into making a change, yet Herrera’s performance over Hull at the weekend makes his inclusion a no-brainer as the only necessary change.
Falcao’s inclusion was a huge boost at the weekend, but given the performances of Rooney, Van Persie and also Mata – who has before been sacrificed – initial impression would be that his impact would again have to come in the latter stages of the game. To drop Mata to incorporate the Colombian would have to see Rooney withdrawn back to the tip of the diamond where his effect is clearly minimal in comparison to a more advance position.
Van Persie has scored in each of his four United performances against the Potters and with Falcao back and baying for a first team start, the Dutchman won’t be able to rely on his Hull performance to maintain a slot in the first eleven.
With Southampton travelling to the Emirates on Wednesday evening still licking their wounds after a 3-0 defeat at the hands of City, another United three points would see the Saints kick off just a single point ahead in third place.
St Mary’s and Southampton await United on Monday evening and a fourth victory in succession against Stoke really puts the pressure on Koeman’s side who have performed above any beyond all expectation. While Stoke will provide stern opposition, Saturday’s resounding victory over Hull should give van Gaal’s men enough encouragement and momentum to deliver another confident, winning performance.
Prediction: I surprised even myself by correctly forecasting Saturday’s 3-0 victory and while United have enough positives to take forward – and just one more injury accumulated in that time – Stoke will certainly not roll over to quite the same extent. However with figures like Sidwell missing in the middle of the park, Herrera, Carrick and Mata should all be able to easily dictate the tempo of this evening’s proceedings and lead United to another confidence boosting victory. 2-0
Probable Line-Up: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Young, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Mata, Rooney, Van Persie