Will Manchester United see the return of Nani vs Stoke? He hasn't played since Man United's 1-0 victory over Arsenal on December 13th. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
On Tuesday, Stoke City visit Manchester United for an evening match at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson's side top the table in the new year, with games in hand versus their title contending rivals. In their previous match this season at Brittania Stadium, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez bagged a brace, including a late winner in the 86th minute. Chicharito's winner was especially uplifting as it came shortly after the Wayne Rooney contract saga was put to bed. It also marked United's first away victory, which would remain the only one until the fortunate 2-1 victory at West Brom this past Saturday.
Stoke come into the match in 8th place after a 2-0 New Year's day victory over Everton. This includes a game in hand with the two teams directly above them in the table. The Potters have a reputation of playing a very direct style in their simple and flat 4-4-2 formation. Manager Tony Pulis makes no apology for their physical play as they are well organized, work hard, and are difficult to beat in the air.
Many have labeled Stoke's approach and style as "ugly," and Arsene Wegner even blabbed that they're a "rugby team." Their back 4 stay relatively flat as their fullbacks rarely push forward into the attack. Stoke attempt to get their wingers, defenders, and even goalkeeper to whip in long balls to their physical forwards. Their central midfielders both tend to play in holding roles. By playing in a rigid structure and in a fashion like this, it allows The Potters to stay organized quite easily. The central portion of the midfield is often bypassed when in possession as long balls are constantly being sent in to the forwards. Forward Kenwyne Jones offers enough pace to get behind defenders if teams try to combat this style by playing a high line and preventing these long balls from constantly being knocked down in their own penalty area.
United have a number of injury concerns heading into the game. Rooney picked up a knock on his ankle late in the game at West Brom. Nani hasn't played since the win over Arsenal due to a hip injury, and it's unclear if he will be available. Paul Scholes, John O'Shea, Antonio Valencia, and Park Ji-Sung all continue to be unavailable, the latter due to his commitments to South Korea for the Asian Cup. With this being the 4th match in a ten day span for United ,and with a FA Cup tilt vs Liverpool awaiting them in the upcoming weekend, it'll be interesting to see who Fergie selects for this physical matchup. Also, keep in mind that earning 3 points versus Stoke would allow them to pick up points on at least one title contending side, as Arsenal battle Manchester City at The Emirates on Wednesday.