The international break has finally come to an end,and the English Premier League is set to recommence this weekend.
Sir Alex Ferguson has welcomed back his international players and will be glad to see that no one has returned to the club injured. Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Javier Hernandez and Shinji Kagawa all scored for their respective sides over the break, whilst Jonny Evans has also earned plaudits for his heroic display in Northern Ireland’s 1-1 draw against Portugal, meaning most of his players aren’t just returning fit, but having found some decent form over international period. Darren Fletcher also managed to come through 180 minutes of football unscathed.
Sir Alex will also be able to call upon the services of Chris Smalling and Ashley Young, who continued their rehabilitation programs over the break, with both reportedly being declared fit for the visit of Stoke City on Saturday.
Nani has also returned from the break and has called for United to quickly refocus their energies on taking the club to the summit of the Premier League table, stating United would have to show their physical, and mental, strength when they come up against the Potters at Old Trafford.
“It is always hard to play against Stoke because they play a different kind of football to most teams in the Premier League. They are very physical and have very strong players,” Nani told ManUtd.com and MUTV.
“It is also difficult because most of the game is in the air. We need to be strong and try to play our game. We are playing at home and we have to believe we can win the three points. It is very important because when you play at home, you have a good chance to win these games.
“It is a good time for us.
“We had a very good result last time against Newcastle before the international break so we are confident and it is a good time to start to believe. But we do not set long-term targets – our only target is to always win the game and to finish on top.”
Manchester United have enjoyed a good run over Stoke City since their arrival on the Premier League scene under Tony Pulis in 2008, particularly at Old Trafford, but Stoke City defender Andy Wilkinson believes that Stoke have evolved since taking their first steps in the Premier League, and has stated that the current Stoke City outfit is a worthy match of any opponent that the Premier League can match them with, including United.
“You dream of playing at places like that [Old Trafford], but once you get out there you have to get on and do your best,” said Wilkinson.
“This club has come so far in the last five years it’s unbelievable, with the players we’ve got here. We shouldn’t be afraid to go anywhere and teams should be afraid of us.
“It’s never going to be easy to go to the big clubs, but the gaffer gets us really well organised. We are always hard to play against because we give everything we’ve got.”
Stoke will have to do a little better in front of goal at Old Trafford this time, as they’ve only scored once in their last eight visits, and they will be hoping that ex-United striker, Michael Owen, can come back to haunt the club who decided to release him over the summer.
Should their strikers fail to hit their marks when the opportunities come there way, then Stoke can at least be reasonably confident that their defence will be up to the sizable task of keeping United at bay, having not conceded a goal in over a month.
It was a bit of a shame that the international break just had to come on the back of a massive 3-0 win away at Newcastle and such an improved performance on the last week. I thought United looked absolutely superb against Newcastle for the most part, and feel that 3-0 was a bit of a let off for Newcastle given the amount of good chances United spurned on the day.
Rooney looked fit and sharp, Van Persie and Welbeck linked up nicely, even if they struggled with the finishing touches, and Kagawa had a decent game. All in all, the diamond shape employed on that day worked a treat, and though United sacrificed their usual width, it was the first time in quite a while that United commanded the middle of the park in such a tough encounter, and certainly a massive improvement on the performance we saw against Tottenham in the first half, and indeed at Newcastle last season.
Hopefully that momentum hasn’t been broken up too much by the international break. In all honesty, the break went as well as it possibly could have in the end, with no injuries, and plenty of good performances as well as goals from the United players.
I can’t see why Sir Alex would want to change too much this week. Playing at home, United might have license to go with a 4-3-3, as opposed to the 4-4-2 diamond we saw last time, but if Sir Alex wants to see the club persevere with this shape, then I think we might just see it again. It does raise a number of questions, such as where do the likes of Valencia, Nani and Young fit in, but having these sorts of players on the bench can allow United to change the game quite dramatically later on. Javier Hernandez might come in for Danny Welbeck, but otherwise, should United play with the same shape that they did against Newcastle, I can’t see many other changes to the line up.
Of course with Valencia back to full fitness, as well as Nani and Young, Sir Alex might revert to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, which poses it’s own selection problems, such as how does one fit all of Rooney, Van Persie and Kagawa into such a line up. It’s certainly not a bad problem to have, but one can’t help but feel that finding the answer to these problems could just determine how successful United are this season.
We know what to expect when we come up against Stoke, and although we have the run over them at home, and indeed away for the most part, this is never a game you want to take for granted. Winning the midfield battle will be key, hence my prediction of an unchanged line up, but whatever the shape we employ, United surely have the tools and personnel to take all three points.