- Man Utd (5th) five points off 4th
- Stoke (9th) four points off 5th
- On Boxing Day: Stoke 2-0 MUFC
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As tight as the top of the Premier League table is these days (five points separate four sides), the margins are even narrower a quarter of the way down the ledger, as clubs five through nine are separated by just four points. Tuesday’s clash between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET, on Live Extra) could go a long way to clearing up the top-five race, or make matters a whole lot messier.
Last time out at Old Trafford, Man United suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Southampton and were subsequently booed off the field at full time. That result, predictably, sent the rumor mill into overdrive with regards to Louis Van Gaal‘s employment. Fast forward 10 days, and the Dutchman is still in charge, though another home defeat could finally spell his end of days. A real positive for United: In his last six games across all competitions, Wayne Rooney has scored six goals, thus giving the previously putrid United attack some measure of potency.
Stoke, meanwhile, have lost three straight across all competitions (one in the PL), even though the results haven’t always matched the performances (more on that from manager Mark Hughes in a moment). Having failed to find the back of the net in 372 minutes (all competitions), the Potters will not relish the challenge of facing a United defense which has conceded just five goals at home all season (fewest in the PL).
On the injury front, United’s back half is currently decimated by injuries, as Phil Jones (ankle), Marcos Rojo (shoulder), Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Ashley Young (groin), Antonio Valencia (foot) and Luke Shaw (leg) are all expected to be unavailable. Meanwhile, the Potters will be without Geoff Cameron (ankle), Ryan Shawcross (back) and Charlie Adam (calf), and possibly Marko Arnautovic (hamstring).
What they’re saying
Man United manager Louis van Gaal: “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.”
Stoke manager Mark Hughes: “I think we’ve got to look to be positive and that’s what we did against Liverpool. We understood what they would do and we were ready for that. The game plan of our own caused them problems. The same will apply to United, we’ll look at areas in which we can be positive and build a performance on that basis. There’s nothing to be fearful or apprehensive of.”
This one has “late winner after 75 or 80 minutes of difficult-to-watch soccer” written all over it. Despite the defensive injuries, Van Gaal will set his side up with a clean sheet atop his list of priorities, which essentially guarantees the Red Devils a 0-0 draw at worst. From there, it’ll be up to Rooney and Anthony Martial to conjure up something special to restore a supportive atmosphere at the “Theater of Dreams.” Man United 1-0 Stoke.