When will Louis Van Gaal crack the code? At the half way stage of the season United’s home record reads 10 games played and 25 points gained. It is a set of results second only to Chelsea’s this season. In stark contrast United has secured just 11 from nine games on the road – two points from as many away fixtures this month. Yet, the Reds’ recovery since November has been strong; United must translate home form to fixtures away from Old Trafford’s abiding comforts if the side is to mount a challenge for the Premier League title. United’s first game of the new year, at Stoke City, will prove a stern test of the Reds’ improving performance.
Not that Van Gaal’s outfit has been universally poor on the road of late. The Dutchman described United’s opening 45 at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday as “the best performance of Manchester United’s season,” although his side missed a clutch of chances in the first half to leave north London with a scoreless draw. Yet, over the season points have so rarely come on the road; victories at Arsenal and Southampton are the exceptions – and United’s performance at the Emirates and St Mary’s hardly merited victory.
Of more immediate concern is United’s need to play through the whole 90 minutes at the Britannia Stadium. It is a goal rarely attained this season. Indeed, it was of little surprise that the Reds’ performance dropped off in the second half at White Hart Lane, with Van Gaal citing fitness concerns after two games inside 48 hours.
Van Gaal’s side was also fortunate to secure three points against Stoke at Old Trafford in early December when the Potters created three good chances in the closing minutes.
“I remember that match, as we were very weak at the end of the game,” said Van Gaal on Tuesday. “You might remember me saying after that game that I needed to change the balance of my team. The balance of my team at that point was not as good as it is now.
“I’m saying every week that we are improving and we have to show that against Stoke. We have won every home game apart from Swansea and Chelsea; away from home, we won at Arsenal and Southampton. Against Southampton, we were lucky. We have to dominate games away from home.”
The Dutchman’s cause is boosted by positive injury news, with Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera and Adnan Januzaj available for the short trip to the Potteries. Di Maria trained this week after recovering from a minor pelvic injury, while Januzaj is available again after illness. Herrera should make the bench although is unlikely to start following Wayne Rooney’s strong performances in central midfield over the past month.
“Herrera has trained today for the first time with us and Januzaj has also trained two training sessions with us,” said Van Gaal on Wednesday. “They don’t have match rhythm. Januzaj was ill and you have to recover from your illness, not from your tiredness. Maybe it’s worse to recover from illness.”
Elsewhere, United’s manager is unlikely to make wholesale changes despite the heavy festival schedule. With returning players still regaining fitness the Dutchman will probably hold back several squad members for the weekend’s FA Cup tie at Yeovil Town.
Meanwhile, Stoke manager Mark Hughes may be without forward Bojan Krkic, who was substituted against West Bromwich Albion on Sunday with a hamstring problem. The 24-year-old former Barcelona striker underwent a scan on Tuesday, with a decision on his participation to be made shortly before the Thursday lunchtime kick off. Ex-United full-back Phil Bardsley has an ankle injury and will miss the tie alongside Stephen Ireland, Victor Moses and Pete Odemwingie.
Hughes suffered a poor record against Sir Alex Ferguson during spells with Blackburn Rovers and Fulham, although Stoke emerged victorious from the Premier League fixture against David Moyes’ United side at the Britannia last season. Charlie Adam’s long range strike and a Michael Carrick own goal contributed to a 2-1 defeat.
And while the Welshman recognises improvement at Old Trafford in the months since Moyes was sacked, the former United striker has every reason to feel unfortunate that Stoke did not grab an equaliser in Manchester last month.
“United seem to have little bit more confidence but that comes from winning which they are doing at the moment,” said Hughes. “They will always be a strong side and a difficult opponent but maybe the change of management has changed their attitude and mentality. They seem to be in a better place than they were when they came here last season.
“It’s still early days for Louis van Gaal at United. He talks a lot about his philosophy and any philosophy that you have as a manager takes time to instil. He has changed shape and formations but that takes time. They need a strong person at the head of the club and he certainly gives that impression.
“We’re looking forward to going up against them. We proved at their place that we can match them and our record against the bigger clubs since I joined the club is good, so we won’t have any apprehension ahead of the game.”
History is on United’s side though. The Reds have won 11 and lost just one of 13 Premier League meetings with Stoke, while striker Robin van Persie has scored 10 goals in as many league appearances against the Potters. The Dutchman may need to continue a record that includes four goals in five matches against the Potters if United is to secure only a third victory on the road this season.
Stoke (4-2-3-1): Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Muniesa, Pieters; Whelan, Nzonzi; Walters, Bojan, Diouf; Crouch
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Jones, McNair, Evans; Valencia, Carrick, Rooney, Young; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Stoke: Butland, Huth, Bardsley, Wilson, Arnautovic, Adam, Shenton Assaidi
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Shaw, Smalling, Rafael, Anderson, Herrera, Januzaj, Pereira, Di Maria, Wilson
Stoke 27 – Draw 32 – United 42
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: M McDonough, L Betts Fourth
Official: M Atkinson
Stoke 0-1 United
£1 bet club
Mata to score in 0-1 win @ 33/1
Running total: £(-)8