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Manchester United Fixtures

Match Preview: Manchester United vs. Stoke City

After opening 2011 by capturing a late (and perhaps a little lucky) win at West Brom, Manchester United look to maintain their hold on top spot in the Premier League as they host Stoke City tomorrow night.

Against the Baggies, United took an early lead through Wayne Rooney, who scored his first goal from open play since March. However, as they did in October’s 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, Roberto di Matteo’s side didn’t allow an early deficit to dent their confidence and soon equalized through James Morrison’s stunner. In the end though, Lady Luck was on the visitors’ side, and after a penalty (and red card) no-call on Gary Neville by Chris Foy and a missed second-half penalty by Peter Odemwingie kept the match level, Javier Hernandez’s headed winner 15 minutes from time handed United the three points that keep them ahead of Manchester City on goal difference with two matches in hand.

After a tricky week away from Old Trafford, United return to the friendly confines looking to maintain their league-best home form, along with their dominance over the Potters.

On the season, United have collected 28 of a possible 30 points at home, five better than Chelsea, whose title hopes suffered another blow with Sunday’s 3-3 home draw with Aston Villa. Another three points would see United move three points clear of Manchester City and five ahead of Arsenal, with those two set to face off at the Emirates on Wednesday.

A win would also be United’s sixth in six Premier League meetings with Tony Pulis’ side over the last three seasons. October’s meeting at the Britannia Stadium shares a lot of similarities with Saturday’s win at West Brom, namely in United taking a lead and being able to hold it, Neville being the luckiest man on the pitch, and Chicharito netting a late winner.

While trips to Stoke have been anything but easy, it’s been quite the opposite when the Potters have visited Old Trafford in each of the last couple of seasons. In November 2008, United dominated from start to finish, and led by Cristiano Ronaldo’s brace, ran away with the three points in a 5-0 rout. Then on the last day of the season last season, United strolled to a 4-0 win at Old Trafford.

Will it be more of the same in Tuesday’s meeting?

Stoke started the new year positively thanks to a 2-0 win over Everton, as a first-half Kenwyne Jones goal and a late Phil Jagielka own goal securing the three points for the home side. Stoke now sit eighth with 27 points from 20 matches, only three points behind sixth-placed Sunderland.

Not only are Stoke in a relatively lofty position in the table, their recent away form sees them playing perhaps as well away from home as they have since moving into the top flight. Their overall road form this season is nothing to shout about, with three wins, a draw, and five defeats away from home this season. However, they’ll be coming in unbeaten in their last three road matches, with wins over West Brom and Blackburn sandwiched around a draw at Wigan.

However, Manchester United at home are a much bigger and stronger animal than any of that trio, and along with the aforementioned unfavorable history at Old Trafford is an overall lack of success against the Premier League’s elite. In 14 meetings against United, Chelsea, and Arsenal, the only points Stoke have to their credit come from a 2-1 home win over Arsenal in the 2008/09 season. And this season, the only positive result Stoke have against one of the seven sides currently above them in the table is a 1-1 home draw against City on Nov. 27.

One player Stoke likely won’t have to worry about facing is Rooney, who suffered an ankle injury late on at West Brom. Rooney did come back for the last few minutes so that United could finish out the game with 11 men, but judging from Sir Alex Ferguson’s post-match comments, Rooney could be out for a couple of weeks. That would appear to rule him for both tonight’s clash and Sunday’s FA Cup tie against Liverpool, but if the timetable is correct and his recovery ends up being on schedule, he’ll be fit and available for a crucial visit to Tottenham on the 16th.

Rooney’s absence would seem to open up a spot in the starting lineup for Hernandez following his winner at West Brom, and it would be only his second start in United’s last ten matches and his first since he started United’s Carling Cup defeat at West Ham at the end of November. His presence in the lineup won’t be welcome news to the visitors, as his brace was their undoing in United’s win in October.

While Rooney will only be a spectator against Stoke, Nani should make his return to action after missing United’s last three Premier League matches due to a hip injury. His absence didn’t have a marked impact in the 2-0 Boxing Day win over Sunderland, but combined with the loss of the in-form Park Ji-Sung due to the Asian Cup, United were far from their attacking best against Birmingham and West Brom.

Even without Rooney in the lineup and Stoke coming to Old Trafford in a nice vein of away form, United should be able to take the three points comfortably, with Nani’s return helping provide a much-needed spark after two underwhelming away performances last week.

Prediction: 3-0 United

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