17:30 KO (BST); Saturday 9th September; Bet 365 Stadium (Stoke, England) BT Sport
Mark Hughes has again attracted several high-profile names to the Midlands this summer to strengthen his squad. Following a poor showing last season, the problem mainly lay amongst the blend of star players which often looked incompatible.
Already four points better off than at this stage last year, Stoke have put points on the board without yet fully playing the style Hughes claims to be seeking.
With improvement still on his mind, Stoke drew both games against Manchester United last season 1-1, but will well know the Red Devils pose a different threat this time around.
For José Mourinho, an improvement on last season’s results will be much sought after. A sixth-placed finish was not what he promised the Old Trafford faithful prior to his first game in charge at United and he will know it won’t be tolerated two years running.
Having made a promising start, it’s still only three games into the season and one game could still change the whole complexion of his side’s chances, especially when Stoke proved to be one problem which United couldn’t overcome last season.
Last Time Out
West Brom 1 – 1 STOKE CITY
After their impressive victory over Arsenal, The Potters were brought back to earth by West Brom, saved only by a Baggies blunder and the faithful head of their 6’7” striker.
After scoring in the EFL Cup and with his only shot in this substitute appearance, Crouch has again proved to be a reliable source of goals at 36-years-old.
With Darren Fletcher dominating in midfield against his old team, it was yet another old head at the back who marshalled his team’s efforts in keeping West Brom away.
With Hughes adopting a 3-4-2-1 system this summer to eradicate last season’s fallibility, Ryan Shawcross has been the main player to enjoy this change. Making 17 clearances for Stoke against West Brom, Shawcross has proved that he’s more than capable of leading the Potters back into the top half of the table.
MANCHESTER UNITED 2 – 0 Leicester City
United continued their impressive start to the season with a victory over a stubborn Leicester side at Old Trafford. Despite Romelu Lukaku missing a penalty in the second half, his blushes were saved by the Red Devils substitutes.
Marouane Fellaini and Marcus Rashford both scored the goals while Jesse Lingard also played a helping hand in saving the game for United.
It was largely due to a switch in tactics by Mourinho rather than in personnel which brought about the win. With Leicester holding solid against the aerial threat from the wings, Mourinho utilised Henrikh Mkhitaryan playing shorter, cuter balls in a central area to craft Stokes downfall.
Making three key passes along with his assist, Mkhitaryan, like United, continues his impressive start to the season.
Stoke City Lineup
Ryan Shawcross (back) will definitely miss out and Kurt Zouma (ankle) is also a doubt, which will provide a problem for Mark Hughes in defence, leading to a debut for new signing Kevin Wimmer.
With Ibrahim Afellay (knee) also ruled out of contention, there’s also a small concern for each of Darren Fletcher (knee), Max Choupo-Moting (hamstring) and Mame Biram Diouf (knee).
Manchester United Lineup
Marcos Rojo (knee), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Ashley Young (fitness) and Luke Shaw (fitness) will all be unavailable for Mourinho, who has no new injury concerns following the international break.
Key Battle: Darren Fletcher vs Juan Mata
The old United stalwart returns again to the club in which he spent twelve playing years after joining their youth development team as a promising 11-year-old.
Following three years in the Midlands where he could play regularly, Fletcher put his injury worries behind him and exerted a real influence on his new team. Now heading into his fourth game for Stoke he has already shown his quality and will be keen to show this off against his old club again.
Looking to sidestep around Fletcher will be the elusive ‘Johnny Kills’. Mata has started every game so far this season ahead of last year’s fan-favourite, Ander Herrera.
In a move by Mourinho to add an extra attacking player into his starting squad, Mata has repaid the faith in him many times over with an average passing accuracy of 90%.
With Stoke crowding the central area and Fletcher marshalling the space in front of their defence, Mata is a player who can pick a fine pass and open the game up.
Stoke dispatched Arsenal to start Arsene Wenger’s latest run of misery, but it was a performance which was an unorthodox way of clinching a victory.
Recording only 23% of possession against the Gunners with only four shots taken on goal, it was the epitome of a smash and grab win which took all three points.
While it sounds easy on paper to keep things tight at the back and hit your opponent with a sucker-punch on the counter-attack, it’s not as easy to do in practice.
With Choupo-Moting possibly sidelined due to injury, Stoke will possibly rely on Saido Berahino to fire them to glory, a striker who has yet to score a Premier League goal for the club since joining them last January.
When this gameplan relies on taking your chances, Mark Hughes and Stoke will hope that their striker can take any chances that come their way.
The beginning of the busy season
With seven games scheduled for September, United will utilise the full capacity of their playing squad.
Mourinho has played a largely unchanged team during the first three fixtures, with Anthony Martial’s start in the last game against Leicester the only change from the side that started the first two fixtures.
With the consistency in players has come a consistency in results and performances, but this will surely need to be tinkered with over the coming weeks.
While Ander Herrera has been a noticeable absentee from the team-sheet, Jesse Lingard featured strongly in the team last season as did Matteo Darmian, while new club captain Michael Carrick is yet to play a single minute in this campaign.
With Victor Lindelöf also yet to feature in the league, there are plenty of high-profile names ready to fit in place, however, the game is won on the pitch rather than on paper and United will need these players to hit the standard that’s already been placed.
PREDICTION: Stoke City 0 – 2 Manchester United
Stoke have made some impressive additions to their squad, notably in defence where Kurt Zouma and the permanent signature of Bruno Martins Indi will prove to be a masterstroke.
They still look like a team who need to gel further up the field and I can’t see them offering enough to prevent the red tide from washing over them.
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