It is less a question of ‘why Delilah’, as Stoke City’s adopted song goes, but what exactly the club’s fans believe is the nature of any rivalry between them and Manchester United? After all, the visiting fans in Sunday’s match at the Britannia care little about Stoke, or the 42 mile distance between the clubs. Much to Stoke’s chagrin, it is a rivalry seemingly born only in Potters’ minds.
Still, the midlands club represents a significant hurdle in United’s faltering season. Victory will ease any palpitations Red hearts now suffer after last week’s reverse against Manchester City. Defeat, unthinkable given the hosts’ dire form, brings City squarely back into the title race with half-a-dozen matches to go.
City’s victory on Monday hurt United, although it has little to do with the Blues’ bizarre claim to the Champions of Manchester tag, but for the potential to derail United’s seemingly inextricable march towards the Premier League title. With a 12 point lead, and just seven matches to go, Ferguson’s team will surely still claim the title, but there is now at least a question mark. Not least because United blew an eight point lead with a similar number of fixtures remaining last season.
Still, if the derby loss does anything it should re-focus minds at Old Trafford, with Sunday’s visit to Stoke followed rapidly by a trip to West Ham United on Wednesday – surely a decisive week in the title race.
“The incentives are there for ourselves in the sense that we’ve only got seven games left,” said Sir Alex Ferguson.
“The challenge is there for Stoke as well. I don’t think they will go down but, nonetheless, they’re in a precarious situation because, down the bottom of that league, you don’t pick up a lot of points. I think they’ll get enough to get out.
“I don’t think we should look at our position in terms of being 12 points clear. What matters is winning on Sunday and we need to do that. As we always do, we should just try to do our best. We have a job to do on Sunday and we need to do it.”
Certainly, defeat is nowhere near as catastrophic as that in last April’s derby – a truly pivotal game. But United’s current funk may say much about the Reds’ state-of-mind. Real Madrid’s controversial victory in the Champions League at Old Trafford has sucked the wind out of United’s sails. It is Ferguson’s job to turn the tide.
But if Ferguson’s ship is listing it is still some way from the sinking below the waterline, even if defeat to City may feel a little deleterious. That Ferguson has sought to play down defeat as one born in the details says much. There must be no sense of panic at Old Trafford.
“It’s always disappointing to lose a derby,” adds Ferguson.
“There was nothing in it between the two teams. Possession-wise, they were better in the first half and we were better in the second half but lost two bad goals and you can’t do that in derby games. Both teams went for it. There was only one save in the whole match between the two goalkeepers. That gives you an idea about how close the game was.
“You don’t want to lose derby games. Nonetheless, we’ve got to dust ourselves down. We know we can recover from disappointments and we’ll do it again.”
That statement may be a little oblique in the circumstances, but Ferguson will at least have plenty of options for the short trip south. He takes a largely fit squad, with only winger Ashley Young, Chris Smalling and captain Nemanja Vidić absent.
Vidić and Smalling should be available next weekend, although Jonny Evans returns against Stoke. Meanwhile, Phil Jones – outstanding against City on Monday night – should retain his place in the United line-up. Paul Scholes could return to the squad.
“We are hoping Nemanja can start training today but he’s maybe a bit short for Sunday,” Sir Alex told MUTV.
“At least Jonny should be back and that’s the good news we’ve got on that front. Chris Smalling has started training running-wise and is not far away. Phil was fantastic and that was only his fourth game at centre-back this season.”
However, the squad’s rut of poor form poses plenty of questions. That none of his wingers claim any semblance of form is a challenge, while the balance between attack and defence is one that United has not always found during the campaign.
Still, Ferguson will field a strong side at the Britannia – a ground at which United has secured three wins from four visits despite Stoke’s reputation for an intimidating atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the hosts are in dire trouble at the foot of the Premier League, with just three points separating third-from-bottom Wigan Athletic and the Potters. Indeed, five defeats in the past six matches leaves Stoke bottom of the form table, with just five points secured in 2013. Even relegation-threatened Aston Villa won comfortably at the Britannia last weekend.
Under fire manager Tony Pullis welcomes back Matthew Etherington, defender Marc Wilson and midfielder Glenn Whelan to the hosts’ squad. The trio’s fitness proffers a boost in what has been an increasingly difficult season for the midlands outfit. After six season’s in the Premier League, the club is genuinely on the precipice.
And there is little comfort for Stoke in the side’s record against United; one that reads eight losses in nine meetings. Stoke has scored just two goals against United in four Premier League meetings at the Britannia, while the Potters must look back to Boxing Day in 1984 – and a 2-1 victory – for the last win over United.
Few will count on a repeat. Least of all Sir Alex.
Stoke City v Manchester United – Premier League, Britannia Stadium – 2.05pm, 14 April 2013 March 2013
Stoke (4-4-2): Begovic; Whelan, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson; Kightly, Nzonzi, Whitehead, Etherington; Jones, Walters. Subs from: Sorensen, Wilkinson, Adam, Cameron, Shotton, Owen, Crouch, Jerome
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Nani; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Scholes, Anderson, Giggs, Kagawa, Hernández, Welbeck
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistants: M McDonough, J Flynn
Fourth official: M Jones
Head to Head
Last 10: Stoke 26, United 38, Draw 32
Overall: Stoke 6, United 3, Draw 1
- Michael Kightly’s second half goal did not prevent Stoke falling to a 1-3 at the hands of Aston Villa last weekend;
- If the home side is to get anything from United’s visit then Ryan Shawcross is key – the Stoke captain lies second on the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for blocks with 38 this season;
- Glenn Whelan boasts the best tackle success rate of any Potters midfielder, completing 55.5 per cent of his 63 challenges;
- Jonathan Walters has scored a number of late winners this season, but his shot accuracy is just 45.2 per cent from 42 attempts;
- Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia admitted this week that United’s players are “worried” following defeat to City on Monday evening – the Ecuadorian winger has been much criticised for his own performances this season despite leading the squad for crosses completed (49) and dribbles (18);
- Defender Jonny Evans continues to improve – highlighted by an excellent 71.8 per cent tackle success rate from 32 challenges this season;
- By his high standards Robin van Persie has been enduring something of a dry spell in recent weeks, although with the Dutchman having a shot once every 24.8 minutes on average a goal is surely around the corner.