Premier League Preview: Can a refreshed United topple a teetering Stoke?

Premier League Preview Manchester United

After living it up in Dubai for the last few days for ‘warm weather training’, Jose Mourinho’s men will return to the wintery depths of Manchester for a home tie against Stoke City on Monday night.

United players and coaches have enjoyed a much-needed ten-day rest from competition and went into the break in style after a 2-0 win against Derby in the FA Cup.

With a fully fit and refreshed squad – apart from injuries to Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Michael Carrick – Jose will face quite the task in deciding what starting XI to field against the Potters.

Will Lingard start given his recent form? Has Luke Shaw proved his worth to Mourinho and deserves to be on the team-sheet? Will Jose start Matic, Herrera, AND Pogba in midfield following Pogba’s midfield masterclass against Everton? All will be revealed soon.

The ten-day break might be just what the doctor ordered for Romelu Lukaku (regular doctor, not a witch doctor), as the Belgian brute will look to recover his form from earlier on in the season. Lukaku has only scored 3 goals in his last 10 Premier League games for United but has found himself at the mercy of a gruelling festive period, starting in almost every game.

One player who looks ready to return to the United squad is Antonio Valencia, who has re-joined his first-team compadres in Dubai. Valencia potentially starting against Stoke could see Victor Lindelof return to his preferred centre-back role, joining either Marcos Rojo or Phil Jones in front of David De Gea.

As far as Stoke are concerned, they’ll go into the fixture with a more pessimistic outlook given the recent departure of Mark Hughes. However, despite being managerless, Stoke could join the likes of Everton, Leicester and West Ham in starting their road to recovery by axing their gaffer.

It was Stoke’s recent 2-1 humiliation in the FA Cup at the hands of Coventry City that ultimately saw the demise of Hughes. But Stoke will hope they can be on the right side of an upset this time, despite United tallying 25 out of a possible 27 points at home against Stoke in the Premier League.

Elsewhere in the top 4, in the biggest clash of the weekend, Liverpool host league leaders Manchester City on Sunday.

City have the chance to increase their unbeaten streak in the Premier League to 23 and could boost their points tally to 65 if they win. Liverpool’s latest and record signing, Virgil Van Dijk, makes his Premier League debut for Liverpool and will aim to continue his impressive start at the club. Van Dijk scored the winner in the side’s 2-1 victory against Merseyside rivals Everton in the FA Cup.

Van Dijk may have a larger task at hand, however, as he’ll be tested with muting the performance of City’s Sergio Aguero. The Argentine has netted 13 goals so far this season, but surprisingly isn’t City’s top scorer. That accolade belongs to Raheem Sterling, who has netted 14 so far this campaign.

This fixture will be Liverpool’s first following the departure of Philippe Coutinho, who left for Barcelona in an eye-watering £142m move last week. Liverpool will hope their new scoring machine Mohamed Salah can add to his 17 league goals, as the Reds have the opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea and United into second if results go their way.

City emerged victorious in the two sides’ last clash in September in a 5-0 thrashing at the Etihad, but Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 14 Premier League home games against the league leaders (10 wins 4 draws).

The other fixture on Sunday sees 16th place AFC Bournemouth face an Arsenal side who are coming off the back of two disappointing results. The Gunners lost 4-2 in the FA Cup to Nottingham Forest, and drew 0-0 against Chelsea in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final.

Arsenal will be without quite a few first team stars, with Mesut Ozil, Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud, Nacho Monreal, Aaron Ramsey and  Sead Kolasinac all out injured. Wenger will struggle to find a partner for Granit Xhaka in midfield, given Francis Coquelin’s recent move to Valencia and Jack Wilshere picking up an ankle injury against Chelsea.

Bournemouth themselves held south coast rivals Brighton to a 2-2 draw last week and will look to win back-to-back league games at the Vitality for the first time since March 2017.

Questions will be raised however over whether Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil will feature this Sunday. Alexis Sanchez’s proposed move away to either of the Manchester clubs has been one of the talking points of the January transfer window so far, with Mesut Ozil also being linked to a move away as his contract also expires in the summer.

The biggest of Saturday’s games sees Spurs host an Everton side who have certainly been making the right steps forward since the appointment of Sam Allardyce. Despite struggling in the relegation zone towards the beginning of the season, the Toffees have managed to climb up to 9th place, Spurs not too far ahead in 5th.

However, the statistics definitely do not sway in favour of Everton. Spurs haven’t lost a game in all competitions since their 4-1 thrashing from Manchester City at the Etihad, and are unbeaten in their last 10 Premier League matches against Everton. Also, Everton have the lowest percentage in the league of points that have come away from home with 29.6%. Spurs are still without Toby Alderweireld, but with Harry Kane being in his usual top goal scorer form, Everton’s own defence will focus more on damage limitation.

Elsewhere in London, last season’s champions Chelsea face off against 2016’s champions, Leicester City. Chelsea currently sit in 3rd place with Leicester in 8th and have the opportunity to jump back into 2nd place if Manchester United fail to pick up a win against Stoke. Ross Barkley may be looking to break into the matchday squad following his £15m move from Everton.

However, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte may want to gradually ease Barkley into the team, as the midfielder has recently returned from 4 months out through injury. Eden Hazard also made his return against Arsenal following a calf injury, and is expected to start against the Foxes.

At Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace welcome 7th place Burnley. Sean Dyche led his side to an impressive start to the season, hanging with the big boys in the top 6. However, Burnley have hit a rocky spell in form, coming off the back of a 2-1 loss at home to Liverpool and being without a win in 6 games. Although, expect Roy Hodgson’s men to really bring the game to Burnley, despite sitting 7 places below them in the table. Palace have been the team closest to breaking Manchester City’s unbeaten league run, following a hearty 0-0 draw at home on New Year’s Eve.

David Moyes has been another manager in the league this year who has helped turn his team’s fortunes around with West Ham, rising from the relegation battle to 15th and holding Spurs to a 1-1 draw at Wembley in their previous game. Moyes’ men travel away to Huddersfield who in their previous game lost 3-0 away to Leicester City. David Wagner’s Terriers will hope to nab a first league win in 4 games, having won just 2 out of 10 before their defeat to Leicester.

Elsewhere in the bottom half of the table, 19th place West Bromwich Albion host 12th place Brighton. Alan Pardew’s men will be looking to make it back-to-back wins following their FA Cup win over Exeter City. Brighton haven’t lost a game since their Boxing Day clash with Chelsea, but have only won once in their last 5 in the league. The game will most likely be overshadowed with questions of Baggies defender, Jonny Evans’ future, amidst speculation of him moving to either Arsenal or Man City in a £25m deal.

Swansea fans will have quite the trek to make up to Newcastle on Saturday this weekend, and they’ll be hoping new manager Carlos Carvalhal will make the trip worthwhile by securing his 2nd win in charge. Newcastle beat Stoke 1-0 at the Bet 365 Stadium in their last league game, but despite an impressive start to the season have fallen down the table into 13th. Swansea themselves lost 2-0 at home to Spurs in their last league game and were then held to a draw by Championship leaders Wolves in the FA Cup.

The final game of the weekend sees Marco Silva’s Watford host Mauricio Pellegrino’s struggling Southampton side. The Saints currently sit in unfamiliar territory just above the relegation zone, but are level on points with 18th place Stoke after failing to win in 9 league matches.

Both sides are going into the fixture having lost their previous games, Watford losing 3-1 to Manchester City and Southampton losing 2-1 to Palace. However, Watford’s only victory at home to Southampton came in the two sides’ very first meeting in December 1999. But despite a shoddy spell of form, Silva’s men are odds-on favourites to win the tie.