Stoke City v Manchester United, Premier League, September 26, 2009
Towards the back end of last season Sir Alex Ferguson pinpointed Unitedâ€™s 1-0 victory (9/2 to repeat the scoreline) at the Britannia on Boxing Day as one of the most crucial results of the season. Ironically it was Carlos Tevez who claimed the lone goal at Stoke last season and United could be in for a similarly tough encounter on Saturday in what should be a true test for the Premier League champions.
Tony Pulisâ€™ side have shown no signs of â€œsecond-season syndromeâ€ so far this campaign and the early indications suggest they could even finish higher than their final placing of 12th in 2008/2009. (Stoke are an unattractive 1/25 odds to beat the drop.)
As was to be expected The Potters continue to be a tough nut to crack at home. At the Britannia they have dispatched of Burnley and Sunderland and were unlucky to lose to a resilient Chelsea side earlier this month. Signalling progress they probably should have also picked up more points away from home after dominating the matches at Birmingham and Bolton.
Above all Stoke will be buoyed by their performance in midweek as they saw off Blackpool in probably the tie of the third round in the Carling Cup. A weakened side came from 2-0 down to eventually win 4-3 thanks to an injury-time winner from Andy Griffin (25/1 to score), a player who rarely plays and is hardly known to score late winners.
There is no shortage of talent in this Stoke side and whilst the long-throws of Rory Delap (8/1 to score) dominated much of their coverage last season they do have some fine performers. In particular Ryan Shawcross (20/1 to score first) will be eager to impress against his former club especially as Sir Alex Ferguson is believed to be interested in bringing the central defender back to Old Trafford.
Ricardo Fuller (7/2 to score) has emerged as a doubt for this match but Pulis has a wealth of talent to call upon to test the United backline. Dave Kitson (9/1 to score first) is a striker reborn with two goals in the Premier League so far and showing the strength in depth to call upon, if Fuller doesnâ€™t make it, James Beattie and Tuncay (4/1 to score) can both be called upon to replace the Jamaican.
Despite all these factors and the vociferous home support which should be at fever pitch on Saturday afternoon, Manchester United come into this match on the back of four excellent results in the Premier League since their surprise defeat at Turf Moor. The Red Devils rode their luck to beat Arsenal but the wins over Wigan, Spurs and Manchester City were emphatic and in recent weeks they have begun to look like the team to beat in the Premier League.
Wayne Rooney (7/2 to score first) has been in sensational form with six goals in the league so far and Ryan Giggs (20/1 to score a brace) still shows no signs of aging and was a key factor in the win over City last week. In addition, Darren Fletcher (13/2 to score & United win) is emerging as a real talisman of the team and his energy could be crucial at the Britannia.
All eyes will no doubt be on Michael Owen (5/4 to score & United win) after his 96th minute winner in the derby and he followed this up with a fine assist for Danny Welbeck against Wolves in the Carling Cup on Wednesday night. The 18-year-old striker scored on his debut against Stoke last season and will also be keen for an opportunity although he will likely only come off the bench.
United are heavy favourites but will have to stand up to some heavy bombardment early on. With injury doubts over Rio Ferdinand and question marks over goalkeeper Ben Foster there may be some joy for the Stoke fans but United should prevail thanks to their superior attacking qualities. (United are 8/13 to keep a clean sheet.)
101gg predicts: Stoke 1 â€“ Manchester United 4 (18/1)
Full match odds here.