Manchester United travel to Stoke City on Saturday looking to build on a somewhat disappointing draw at home to Liverpool six days prior. That was a game where United’s key players simply did not win their battles, and that is something that they will be no doubt looking to put right in the Potteries on Saturday. It is for this reason that as last week, two of last week’s three key battles feature again this weekend. Paul Pogba and, despite his goal, Zlatan Ibrahimović played well within themselves last weekend; players of that ilk rarely do that without a swift response. Despite losing their nine game winning streak, United are now 16 games in all competitions without loss. Although Stoke come into this game in a bit of form of their own, having claimed six points from the last six available. This is a big and tough game for United if they are to rise up the Premier League table.
Peter Crouch vs Marcos Rojo
In a surprise to most Premier League fans, United go into this match looking at Peter Crouch the ‘danger man’. Stoke’s forgotten giant has come back into the team to excellent effect for his side since Christmas. The lanky Englishman has created five chances for his team-mates and scored one himself in Stoke’s last two Premier League outings. This marks him as Stoke’s form player and poses completely different challenges for United’s defence and in particular, Marcos Rojo. The Argentine excels as a defender winning duels on the ground, he is yet to conclusively prove himself in the air, and in Crouch, he faces a man who has won 78% of aerial duels this season. This is comfortably the best of any Premier League forward, and more than most centre-halves. Rojo will certainly have his hands full with Crouch on Saturday and United will need him to limit the Englishman’s crucial knockdowns at the Bet 365 Stadium.
Paul Pogba vs Glenn Whelan
Against Liverpool, Paul Pogba put in his worst Manchester United performance by a distance, including those made as a teenager before his 2012 move. However, the Frenchman is a top player, and top players respond. After a motivational message on social media, swearing to improve on his weekend showing, expect the world’s most expensive player to be up for this game. At Stoke, we could see the Pogba who powers through the midfield at a canter if he feels he has a point to prove. Pogba is a wounded animal, and that makes him all the more daunting for Mark Hughes’ side. In the absence of the terrific Giannelli Imbula, Stoke will look to Glenn Whelan to hold the fort in midfield on Saturday, and the Irishman could have a rough day at the office should Pogba respond.
Zlatan Ibrahimović vs Ryan Shawcross
Much like Pogba, despite his goal, Zlatan was a shadow of himself last Sunday and will look to respond against the Potters. Despite his vast wealth of experience, it is clear that the big Swede still has flaws in his game to iron out. The most glaring of these is his ability to stay onside. All too often this season, Zlatan is caught offside when he simply shouldn’t be. Against Liverpool, Zlatan got the better of his man, rolled him and went to drive at Mignolet one on one, only for the flag to be raised against him. Zlatan had his back to goal at the start of the move to turn his defender, to be offside in that situation is simply unacceptable. This needs to be ironed out of his game, defenders are savvier to strikers who labour getting back onside in England, so he can’t get away with it as he did in Ligue 1. Should a word be put in his ear from the manager and this be ironed out, Zlatan will offer even more than he has done so far this season for United, a daunting prospect for defenders. The defender responsible for tracking Ibrahimović’s whereabouts on Saturday will be Ryan Shawcross. The ex-United man has excelled at Stoke and can consider himself unlucky not to be playing at a higher level at this stage in his career. Shawcross is physically dominant and won’t be bullied by United’s number nine, although – like Pogba – should Zlatan bounce back, expect it to be with a bang.