Stoke-on-Trent (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Manchester United’s visit to Stoke on Saturday offers the chance to exorcise some bad memories as Jose Mourinho’s side look to reel in the Premier League’s top four.
United’s lowest point of last season came in this fixture when, amid fevered speculation about Louis van Gaal’s future as manager, they performed woefully and slipped to a 2-0 Boxing Day defeat.
Van Gaal, as it turned out, held on to his job for another five months before he was sacked to make way for current United boss Mourinho.
United are actually one place lower in the Premier League now than they were at the end of last season, but they are on the rise at the moment, having gone 16 matches unbeaten in all competitions.
Despite that run, United have remained in sixth place for more than two months, but having been nine points adrift of the top four in early December, that gap has been reduced to four.
It would have been just two points had Mourinho’s side managed to beat Liverpool last Sunday, but having trailed for much of the game, they had reason to be satisfied with the 1-1 draw secured by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s header.
United, who have won their last four away games, have more or less a full squad to choose from, with the only significant absentee being defender Eric Bailly, who is at the Africa Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast.
Mourinho is content enough with the size of his squad to be willing to sanction the imminent sale of winger Memphis Depay to Lyon.
With a glut of cup fixtures to come over the next month, United may well have found use for Depay, but there was acknowledgement from the club that the player needed to start afresh.
– Murmurs of discontent –
Depay has made only four substitute appearances for United this season, one of which was when Stoke earned a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in October – a match in which Mourinho’s side paid for failing to take their chances.
United midfielder Michael Carrick says that fixture is a warning that they must not be caught out again.
“Stoke have got some very good players and we know it’s probably not the same going there now as it was seven or eight years ago,” Carrick said.
“I think Mark Hughes has come away from the sort of long throw-ins and set-plays that put you constantly under pressure in your own box.
“He’s brought in players that are technically very good and can play some exciting football. It’s a different style but equally as tough.”
Stoke will face United on the back of two successive league victories but with murmurs of discontent continuing among supporters.
Wins in the Premier League against Watford and Sunderland came either side of an FA Cup defeat by Wolves, which left Mark Hughes’ men with no realistic hope of a trophy this season.
A recent run of five games without a victory saw Hughes’ methods questioned by a section of fans and led to a run-in between captain Ryan Shawcross and a handful of outspoken supporters during the warm-up for the Watford game.
The defender went on to score against the Hornets and cup his ear towards his critics in celebration, and the former Manchester United trainee has called for perspective ahead of the meeting with his old club.
“It’s football, it’s an emotional sport,” said Shawcross.
“A lot has been made out in the media that we’ve been having a bad season but we are around Southampton, who are the next big thing apparently, and we’re two points behind West Brom, who have apparently been doing brilliantly.
“It’s same old, same old, little old Stoke never get any attention.”
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