Rewind a year. As another year notched on the calendar, United entered 2014 in lowly 7th place, preparing for what would be a 2-1 home defeat to Tottenham – our sixth loss in the league that season. Despite being just two points better off at the turn of the year this time around, things are feeling infinitely better.
League position aside, this season has given the fans plenty more to cheer; a renewed sense of optimism, a stronger side and a manager strong enough to deal with the stature of the club. United enter the new year and an away tie at Stoke – the tallest team in Europe – on a run of nine games undefeated, winning seven in the process.
Momentum has stuttered a little of late, with away draws at Aston Villa and Tottenham seeing us pass up the opportunity to gain ground in our attempts to chase down Chelsea and Manchester City. Away form still remains the key issue for Louis van Gaal’s side, with just a mere two victories picked up on the road. Stoke and Mark Hughes will have no desire to make that task any easier as proved by their hard fought efforts at Old Trafford a month ago.
The Potters come into the game in handy form, picking up three victories from their last five, including two on the spin most recently against Everton and West Brom.
United on the other hand marked their second draw in three matches over the festive period as they turned in a Jekyll and Hyde performance in a 0-0 at White Hart Lane on Sunday. The manager described United’s first half as perhaps our best of the season so far, with United creating chances and dominating the match, with Juan Mata once again integral going forward. The second half failed to replicate the same relentless pressure as the first, where a breakthrough had seemed inevitable.
Two matches in 48 hours looked to have gotten the better of a squad much depleted through injuries and illness with Falcao in particular starting to look off pace. The Colombian’s return to the starting line-up though egged on by fans, may have come slightly premature for the managers liking, with his hand forced due to injuries to Di Maria and Herrera with Rooney dropping into the middle of the park. Logic dictates that Falcao and possibly van Persie will be rested soon in order to conserve energy, but with an FA Cup tie with Yeovil on Sunday, that seems a more likely match for the likes of Wilson and Januzaj to make their mark.
With players steadily starting to ease their way back towards fitness, question marks loom over how the manager will decide on his first eleven. A five man defence has been used to recently in order to facilitate Valencia and Young in wing-back positions, though Rafael and Shaw’s return to the first-team set up could see a swift return to a four man backline due to the duo’s more natural defensive instincts. It’s unlikely that both changes will take place on New Year’s Day, with both Rafael and Shaw only having one substitute appearance under their belt, coupled with some competent performances from both Young and Valencia. A groin injury for the Ecuadorian however may prevent him making the short trip to Stoke. Chris Smalling also returned to the fold from the bench at White Hart Lane and could be another in line to pressure for a starting place.
The centre of the park is likely to remain unchanged for the trip to the Britannia, with Rooney and Mata supported by Michael Carrick once more. Di Maria’s comeback will have significant impact to the first team prospects of either Mata or Falcao with the feeling that Rooney’s midfield role is viewed as much more of a temporary solution, though the Argentine’s return to training along with Herrera and Januzaj will likely be too late to challenge for starting berths.
A run of 23 points from a possible 27 has seen United’s top four push boosted hugely, though picking up more points away from Old Trafford are a necessity in order to either maintain current position, or harbour hopes of catching the top two. Relatively speaking, the club’s situation looks slightly more attractive given the lacklustre showings of the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton and Liverpool, all of whom finished in a superior league position last year.
In order to pick up another three points at the Britannia in what will be another difficult clash, chance conversion must improve with both van Persie and Falcao both failing to find the net despite clear chances against Tottenham. The Dutchman has been in much better scoring form of late, while El Tigre will inevitably find himself back to his lethal best upon hitting optimum match fitness levels.
The home side will be without a few key names of their own with Bojan doubtful after picking up a hamstring injury, whilst former Red, Phil Bardsley has ankle issues.
United have picked up six victories from six of their previous meetings with Stoke in all competitions. The other? You guessed it, 13/14.
Southampton and Arsenal trail United in fourth and fifth respectively, just three points behind as they meet at St Mary’s. With a big chance for either side to move clear of the other, a positive result for United is key at the Britannia, particularly given the Saints superior goal difference.
Prediction: A four day recovery period may still not be enough to fully satisfy the manager, but such is life in the Premier League and is double that allowed for recovery between clashes with Newcastle and Tottenham. United travel to Stoke knowing that not only must away results improve, but that they still remain one of the in form teams in the division picking up 23 points from an available 27 – league challenging form if maintained. Hughes and co will prove a tough nut to crack as always – having registered wins over both Man City and Arsenal this campaign – but with the quality United have to offer, coupled with returning players slowly seeping back into the side, another three points are more than attainable at the Britannia. I’ll punt for a repeat of the Old Trafford game, a nervy, nail-biting 2-1 victory.
Probable Line-Up: De Gea, Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Evans, Young, Carrick, Rooney, Mata, Falcao, Van Persie