United return to action at Old Trafford on Monday evening (8.00pm kick-off) against now manager-less Stoke City, having spent most of this week at an impromptu training camp in sunny Dubai, as our League Cup conquerors Bristol City faced our Blue neighbours in the Semi-Final 1st Leg of that competition…yes, the lives of Premier League footballers can be so very difficult!
The lads should be well rested ahead of this showdown with opponents that we have found difficult to beat on their own pitch, but have a decent record against at home. Bar the long-term injury absentees (Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimović), Jose Mourinho should have a fairly full squad to select his line-up from, and I expect to see us take the game to Stoke City from the first whistle.
The visitors arrive in dismal form, sitting 18th in the table. Former United favourite Mark Hughes was given his “marching orders” after a very poor defeat to lowly Coventry City condemned the Potters to an early exit from the F.A. Cup, though in reality that could yet turn out to be a blessing in disguise, since they have a big task ahead over the coming months to ensure they retain their Premier League status next season. A number of their players have had very average seasons to date, and the Potters have by far the worst ‘goals against’ column in the league, having conceded a staggering 47 goals in their opening 22 games so far, and this despite having one of the brightest young goalkeepers in the country in England hopeful Jack Butland.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (very fluid 4-2-3-1)
GK: David de Gea – David had little to do at Goodison Park in his last appearance, with his defenders snuffing out nearly everything Everton had to offer as an attacking force. I would hope he has a similarly largely untroubled evening against Stoke City, though lanky Peter Crouch remains a big threat if we concede set-pieces around our area.
RB: Antonio Valencia – with Ashley Young serving the third of a three-match ban for elbowing Southampton’s Dusan Tadic on 30th December, I’m hoping Tony has recovered enough from his hamstring injury to be available for selection for this game. If not, then Victor Lindelof can deputise again at right-back.
LB: Luke Shaw – Shaw has been excellent since returning to 1st team action, and I’d be delighted for Luke to see that form continued in this game; he should get plenty of opportunities to show his attacking prowess as well, though will need to keep tabs on the maverick Xherdan Shaqiri, who has been Stoke’s main dangerman this season.
CBs: Marcos Rojo & Phil Jones – Eric Bailly remains out longer-term, and even though Chris Smalling is back in contention, I would retain the Rojo – Jones partnership if possible. Jones has been our most consistent centre-half this season, and Rojo seems to play well alongside him. They will likely face a tricky pairing of Crouch and Eric Choupo-Moting, who ruined our visit to the Potteries in September by scoring twice in the 2-2 draw.
DMs: Ander Herrera & Nemanja Matic –I expect Mourinho to name these two in similar roles to those they performed so well at Everton on New Year’s Day; Herrera’s presence should allow Paul Pogba to venture further forward and cause the leaky Stoke defence some real problems.
RM: Juan Mata – Juan has been in good form of late, weaving his magic from the right side, and I’d be happy to see that form continued here; in all likelihood the visitors will put men behind the ball to try to frustrate us as long as they can, and so we’ll need some guile from the likes of Mata and Pogba to open them up.
AM (C): Paul Pogba – Paul remains the heartbeat of the team, a menacing presence to the opposition and an inspirational one to those around him in red shirts; he is at a different level to solid journeymen like Geoff Cameron and Joe Allen, and I hope we see that gulf in class clearly at Old Trafford on Monday evening.
LM: Jesse Lingard – Lingard has been the ‘star’ man of this side for the last month or so, combining his trademark non-stop running with several simply stunning strikes, all vitally important in the context of our domestic season. His goal at Everton was sublime, but the opening strike in the 2-0 win over a stubborn Derby County last Friday evening was, if anything, even better, an instinctive volley which gave Scott Carson no chance. Butland should take note…
CF: Romelu Lukaku – the big man returned from the head injury he sustained against Southampton to add another goal to his tally for the season against the Rams, and having shaken off the ill effects of that injury and spent the last few days enjoying the climate in Dubai, Romelu should be ready to cause Stoke City all sorts of trouble – if we can get service to the big Belgian, Jack Butland will be in for a busy evening….
BENCH: Romero, Rashford, Lindelof, Blind, Martial, Fellaini, Mkhitaryan.
The timing of Stoke City’s sacking of Mark Hughes, just before they visit United, can really work one of two ways: their players can be itching to show they are better than what they have shown to date (which was poor enough to get their manager fired), or they can be further demoralized by that event, and at a really low ebb. Of course, the Potters may have hired a new boss before Monday evening, which you would imagine would give a lift to everyone in Staffordshire, but in all honesty, no matter which scenario plays out, Manchester United should be far too strong for this Stoke side at Old Trafford, and anything less than a comfortable home victory will be a disappointment.
Given the timing of the game, United will already know the results from our rivals’ games before we kick-off against Stoke City, and with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur both playing home games, I would imagine that we will need a victory to reclaim our 2nd place position in the league table behind Manchester City. City travel to Anfield to face a Liverpool side who have strengthened their defence with the purchase of Virgil van Dijk, and who may very well provide Pep Guardiola with his first domestic defeat of the season.
This home fixture should provide our players with a chance to convince the manager that he doesn’t need to go out and “splash any cash” on new additions to the squad this month – anything less than a commanding home win will raise questions that some of them won’t want to know the answers to….