Manchester United will be aiming to close the gap to the top four when they face ninth-placed Stoke City, who have lost on all sevenof their previous Premier League visits to Old Trafford.
A five point deficit to make up between themselves and the Champions League places mean that United cannot afford to drop too many points between now and the end of the season, but they are having to work so hard to win games at present. The run of 11 successive home matches without scoring a first half goal is an embarrassing one for a club of their stature, so in order to end that here they must make an energetic and incisive start and make life difficult for the Stoke defence.
The man most capable of doing that is Anthony Martial, who has more often than not been the one player likely to make something happen. He was the outstanding player as his side avoided the ignominy of going out to Championship promotion hopefuls Derby County in the FA Cup fourth round on Friday as his trickery and technique proved too much to handle, so the Frenchman can help set the tone of this one by testing visiting right-back Glen Johnson in the opening exchanges.
The defeat at leaders Leicester City in their last Premier League clash was not Stoke’s finest hour as they created little and when down to an uncharacteristic 3-0 defeat, but half an eye must have been on the upcoming Capital One Cup semi-final second leg at Liverpool. They were superb at Anfield and deserved to book a place at Wembley, but penalty shootout failure meant that all their hard work and effort counted for nothing, so it will be interesting to see their long-term response to such a setback.
Losing captain Ryan Shawcross to injury for the second time this season came as a major blow, but it provides a chance for the tidy Philipp Wollscheid to step up again at lead the defence and his primary concern will be to give goalkeeper Jack Butland as much protection as possible in a game where Man Utd will be expected to have more of the possession. The biggest threat for Stoke will come from Marko Arnautovic, who scored a fine goal to help win the reverse fixture.
The hosts could give a start to Michael Carrick, who came off the bench at Derby after missing the previous four games. However, Bastian Schweinsteiger remains on the sidelines.
This game will probably come too soon for Stoke to give a debut to new record signing Gianelli Imbula, while they are without defenders Ryan Shawcross and Marc Wilson.
The winner came in somewhat fortunate fashion as Juan Mata’s free-kick into the box when all the way in, and the hosts held on thanks to David De Gea’s brilliant late save from Mame Biram Diouf.