United should try to avoid Peter Crouch vs. Patrice Evra aerial duels on Tuesday
It's a quick turnaround for Manchester United after their FA Cup defeat by Liverpool FC on Saturday as Sir Alex Ferguson's lads get ready to host Stoke City on Tuesday night for a Premier League tie. During the reverse fixture at the Britannia in September, United lost their then 100% record after a 1-1 draw resulted. In that match, Nani opened the scoring in the 27th minute when he fired a shot past goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. In the 52nd minute, Peter Crouch rose high and headed home the equaliser from a Matthew Etherington cross.
Form Guide: The Red Devils come into the match sitting 2nd in the league table after 22 matches. They trail 'noisy neighbour' Manchester City by 3 points. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, United's most recent match saw them eliminated from the FA Cup after their 2-1 defeat by Liverpool at Anfield. In league play, Fergie's side has recovered well after successive losses to Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United near the new year -- a 3-0 victory against Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford and a 2-1 away defeat of Arsenal FC at the Emirates followed.
Team News: Injuries continue to be a major concern for the squad. The likes of captain Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, and Michael Owen are still out due to long-term injuries while Wayne Rooney, Nani, and Phil Jones are also expected to unavailable for this match. Ashley Young is a doubt as well for this match but the winger is expected to return to training during the midweek. Anderson was expected to return to training by today and he could possibly be included for this match. Rio Ferdinand was fit enough to make the bench versus Liverpool and he is expected to be fit for selection against Stoke -- assuming his chronic back injury doesn't flare up on him again.
Form Guide: The Potters come into the clash sitting 8th in the league table. Stoke's most recent match occurred at the past weekend as Tony Pulis' side defeated Derby County 2-0 during a FA Cup Round 4 tie. The league form of the visitors has dipped as of late as they've only earned a single victory during their last six encounters. During this stretch, Stoke have only picked up 6 points. Just as United is, Stoke are in the knockout stages of the Europa League as they are set for a two-legged tie versus La Liga side Valencia. Who would have ever anticipated a Stoke vs. Valencia match-up in European competition?! It will be interesting to see how a Spanish side handles a cold night in Stoke...
Team News: Injuries are a very minor concern for the club. Etherington was substituted off at the weekend after sustaining a groin injury. The unavailability of the winger for this match is unknown.
United: Although David de Gea was stellar at the Britannia during the reverse fixture, Anders Lindegaard likely gets the nod tomorrow night after the Spaniard's failure to command his box again at Anfield. If Ferdinand is deemed fit, he likely starts at center-back alongside Jonny Evans. A possible Ferdinand return would allow for Chris Smalling to slide over to right-back and thus allow United to have more height against Stoke's constant aerial threat. Patrice Evra is Fergie's automatic choice at left-back.
Michael Carrick is likely in central-midfield but beyond him, the selection choices may be limited. Both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs could start alongside Carrick but since their fitness is likely to be closely monitored, each may be rotated out for this midweek tie and only available as substitutes. Perhaps Anderson returns and gets the start with the option of bringing on either Scholes or Giggs in the 2nd half if the Brazilian tires. Youngster Paul Pogba -- who was on the bench for Liverpool -- and Park Ji-sung are possibilities as well.
In attack, the in-form Antonio Valencia appears to be an automatic selection as the right-winger unless Fergie wants to use him at right-back -- just as he did at the Britannia. Park is the probable choice on the left flank although Danny Welbeck is possible here as well. Up front, Welbeck may be rotated while Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Herndandez (Chicharito) could form a partnership.
Stoke: Thomas Sorensen is likely to be selected in goal over Begovic while the anticipated center-back pairing is Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross. Jonathan Woodgate is also a possibility at center-back but he's recently been used at right-back. At left-back, Marc Wilson has been selected 20 times this season and he is likely to start again in this match.
In midfield, Glenn Whelan and long-throw specialist Rory Delap appear to be the most likely candidates to start in the center of the park. However, Wilson Palacios and Dean Whitehead are possibilities as well - especially if Pulis elects to use a third central-midfielder. Out wide, Etherington is obvious choice on the left if fit but if he isn't, Jonathan Walters is a possible replacement. On the right flank, any of Ryan Shotton, Jermaine Pennant, or Walters are candidates to be selected. Up front, target-man Peter Crouch is almost certain for selection and he could be partnered by either Walters or Cameron Jerome.
* Defending against Stoke's aerial threat: Without a doubt, the biggest and most obvious tactical key for United will be how they deal with the constant aerial threat that Stoke presents. The Potters' average of 40.2% possession per match and their 69.7% passing success rate both rank last in the Premier League. In addition, their 14.6 aerial duels per game is tops in the league. From this, it's easy to deduce what Stoke's tactics are and these statistics certainly back the belief that Pulis' side play extremely direct football.
During the reverse fixture, Crouch won an impressive 11 aerial duels out of 13 (85%) -- a match where Jones was mainly tasked in marking him while Ferdinand acted as the covering center-back. Last season -- when Crouch was with Tottenham Hotspur -- he only won 5 out of 10 aerial duels (50%) when Vidic was marking him. In this match, it will likely be either Evans or Smalling challenging Crouch with Ferdinand covering in behind again. United's loss of their combative captain will likely magnified during this tie.
Stoke's aerial prowess is a threat from both open-play and on set-pieces. In open play, long balls will be hoofed for Crouch while Walters tries to position himself close to the target-man for knockdowns. In addition, Etherington and Pennant may look to cut in from the flank in anticipation of knockdowns as well -- just as they did during the reverse fixture. (Stoke 1-1 Man United | Tactical Review). Furthermore, when Stoke do build an attack in open play, they generally look to swing the ball out wide so that their wingers can whip in crosses for the likes of Crouch, Walters, and Kenwyne Jones.
On set-pieces, the aerial threat of Crouch, Walters, Shawcross, Huth, and Woodgate is an obvious concern. This doesn't just include free-kicks and corners, but it includes throw-ins as well -- Delap will look launch long-throws into the box anytime Stoke have a throw-in in their attacking third of the pitch. Although due to the limited space beyond the touchline at Old Trafford, this long-throw threat may be minimized. Stoke's aerial threat may be another benefit of having Berbatov start as his height and aerial ability could supplement Ferdinand, Evans, Smalling, and Carrick when defending set-pieces.
* United likely to dominate possession, but can be they be incisive enough?: Against Liverpool at the weekend, United dominated possession but failed to be incisive enough in attack. A similar pattern occurred at the Britannia in September. United are likely to be without talisman Rooney again and also without tricky winger Nani. The partnership of Berbatov and Chicharito has proven to be a strong one over the past season-and-a-half when selected together -- if selected, can this continue or will the sparing playing time each has received lately hinder their sharpness? United will need someone to operate between the lines and link play between midfield and attack -- Berba can be that man.
It will also be interesting to see who is chosen to play on the flank. Had they been healthy, both Nani and Young would be ideal choices to go up against Woodgate. The Stoke defender is a natural center-back and he's proven to be vulnerable against tricky and/or pacy wingers. Park likely is chosen to play on the left flank but he's not an out-and-out attacker like Nani and Young. The Korean's strengths lie more in his tactical awareness and link-up play in attack. Perhaps then, Evra's ability to surge forward with overlapping runs will be key in helping United be incisive in attack.
* United's defensive positioning: The concern with marauding full-backs is their vulnerability to being caught out of position. This has certainly been a problem for Evra this season and he struggled to defend Pennant during the reverse fixture. The Stoke winger got himself free to attempt 16 crosses during that match while an impressive 6 found a teammate. Evra will have to balance his defending duties with the opportunities that he will have to get forward into the attack.
On the other side of the pitch, Etherington -- a former United trialist -- is an obvious threat. He too bombarded United with crosses in September (5 successful out of an attempted 12) and one of them found Crouch for his headed goal. Whoever United's right-back is -- likely Smalling -- he will have to be positionally sound as well. If it is indeed Smalling deployed here, he likely will be more cautious in getting forward as the natural center-back isn't the same threat as Evra, Rafael, or Jones when marauding forward.
At center-back, whoever the covering or sweeping center-back is -- anticipated to be Ferdinand -- he will need to be positionally sound as well and especially so during knock-downs. This covering defender needs to anticipate the knockdowns well and be careful not to let midfield runners get in behind him.
KO: Tuesday 8:00pm GMT, 3:00pm EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: unavailable (U.K.), ESPN2 (USA)
Referee: (who?) Mike Jones
Odds: Manchester United 3/10, Draw 4/1, Stoke City 9/1
TBB prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Stoke City