Boxing Day 2015. Manchester United, beaten 2-0 by Stoke City, left the Britannia Stadium flattered by a disappointing scoreline. Louis van Gaal marched down the touchline waving at the traveling United fans. Many saw it as an apologetic goodbye; few thought they would see Van Gaal in the dugout again. The defeat left United without a win in seven games over a period that saw the Reds crash out of the Champions League and slip down the domestic table.
Forward six weeks and not much has changed at Old Trafford. Van Gaal’s side is still struggling, despite four wins in the seven games since that day at Stoke. At times the atmosphere at Old Trafford has descended into bedlam, with many fans calling for both Van Gaal and Ed Woodward’s head. To top it off, neighbours Manchester City stole the show on transfer deadline day by announcing the signing of the much coveted Pep Guardiola as the club’s new manager from next season. The outlook is bleak in the red half of Manchester.
Yet, United welcome Stoke to Old Trafford on Tuesday with a renewed sense of confidence after a good display in the FA Cup away at Derby County. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Daley Blind and Juan Mata ensured a 3-1 victory in a rare decent attacking performance. It was ‘only Derby’ but victory does enough to secure the manager’s future for now.
Meanwhile, Stoke provides a sterner to test for United, with the Reds desperate to create some momentum in the race with Tottenham Hotspur for Champions League football next season. Van Gaal’s side was comfortably beaten by the Potters over Christmas, but history is at least on United’s side – the Reds have never lost to Stoke at Old Trafford, while manager Mark Hughes has been on the losing side on his previous eight visits the Theatre of Dreams.
Despite the poor personal record former United favourite Hughes remains optimistic, claiming that his side is on course to replicate Leicester City’s success this season.
“It’s a big game on Tuesday. We can affect them and help ourselves, so we’ll try to do that,” the Welshman said. “Obviously the stand out team is Leicester by virtue of what they are doing, but there are a lot of other teams around them, and we’d like to include ourselves in that, who are doing OK and can shake things up a bit.”
It’s a bold claim from Hughes, although the confidence comes from a set of talented players performing well this season. Similarly, Van Gaal is also confident after watching his side successful dismantle a spirited Derby side.
“I hope we give the same level of performance as against Derby,” the Dutchman said. “Stoke City are a team that every club has a lot of difficulties with. I saw them play against Liverpool and thought that they were very good. I have to say I like how Stoke play, very much”.
Indeed, the manager could take inspiration from some of Stoke’s performances, with Hughes’ side at times epitomising the approach of early era Sir Alex Ferguson. Hughes’ team is happy to bully the opposition with a combination of pace and power, not to mention the skill of Bojan Krkić, Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay. Still, Van Gaal will be happy to face Stoke at this particular stage of the season. The Potters have lost two away games on the bounce and also crashed out of the FA Cup at the hands of Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Van Gaal’s players have gained some confidence from last Friday’s victory at Derby, especially after the manager seemingly offered his team a little more freedom against the Championship side.
“It was really positive. We started on the front foot, we played with freedom and I think we excited the fans,” said winger Jesse Lingard. “We have to press teams in most games now, put them on the back foot and force mistakes, then we can get the second ball and start playing football.”
Whether that freedom continues as United heads into the business end of the season is another question. There is no room for error if the Reds are to finish in the top four.
“The games are coming thick and fast now, so we have to prepare right mentally. We don’t look too far ahead or behind. We take each game as it comes and we know we’ll have to be at our best to beat Stoke,” Lingard concluded.
Lingard, like most of his teammates, must find a level of consistency the Reds have lacked all season if the club is the make the Champions League next season and advance in the FA Cup. It starts with victory over Stoke on Tuesday.
“It is important that the fans continue to support the players against Stoke as the players have the most difficult task – they have to get a result at that hour, against Stoke’s resistance and there are no excuses. The fans have to support again,” begged Van Gaal.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Jones, Tuanzebe, Fellaini, Lingard, Januzaj, Pereira, Keane, Memphis
Stoke subs from: Haugaard, Johnson, Shawcross, Whelan, Teixera, Crouch, Walters, Ireland, Arnautovic
With United through to the fifth round of the FA Cup the objective from now until the end of the campaign is to claim a spot in the Premier League top four and, if possible, reach a Wembley final. Neither is an easy task, especially with Leicester and Tottenham showing no signs of slowing down.
Victory over Stoke is an important test, with Van Gaal likely to retain faith in a back four that performed well at Derby. Right-back Guillermo Varela was a standout performer, while Chris Smalling and Daley Blind continued to build a promising partnership. Blind has excelled at times this season in a role where many observers believed he would struggle. The Dutchman has suffered against quicker, stronger, opposition, but his game intelligence has generally functioned well. Meanwhile, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s emergence has limited the urgency of Van Gaal’s search for a left-back in the January transfer window.
In midfield, Michael Carrick’s return to the match day squad means that the veteran may make a first start in a month. Carrick could partner Morgan Schneiderlin, who was at fault for Derby’s goal on Friday night. Further forward, Juan Mata’s second half performance means that the Spaniard will retain his place, albeit shifted to the right to allow Ander Herrera to return at 10.
Anthony Martial continues on the left after another electric performance against the Rams. The Frenchman was at the heart of everything good about United’s attacking display at Derby and was unlucky not to score. The plaudits were thick, with Carrick describing the youngster as “unplayable.”
Wayne Rooney continues up front after another positive performance on Friday night. Rooney’s goal, a fantastic strike from 25 yards, was his 13th of the season and his 243rd in total for United. The Scouser is now just seven goals away from passing Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time record as top goalscorer for the club, and he remains confident of breaking the record this season. It is a scenario few onlookers predicted when the captain was dropped for the reverse fixture at The Britannia on Boxing Day.
Referee: Roger East
Assistants: D Cann & M McDonough
Fourth official: A Madley
United 2-0 Stoke