Manchester United will probably lose the battle to Chelsea, but they’ll win the war with Stoke

Manchester United v Stoke, Premier League, May 9, 2010

Manchester United 1.12; Draw 7.06; Stoke 19.49

Although Manchester United have virtually no chance of winning the league this season, the outside possibility of Wigan beating Chelsea means that Sir Alex Ferguson must approach the visit of Stoke with the utmost respect and diligence.

Now is not the time for essays on where things went wrong for the Red Devils this season. There is plenty of time in the ever approaching summer for discussions on the failings of Dimitar Berbatov, Bayern Munich and the home loss to Chelsea. What is important right now, though, is that Manchester United give themselves every chance of nicking the unlikeliest of titles, and to do that Sir Alex will disregard thoughts of tomorrow and no-doubt select a strong starting eleven to finish the season off with.

With much still at stake, it is unlikely that returning Englishman Owen Hargreaves, who was brought on for barely enough time for the announcer to confirm his introduction against Sunderland, will start the match against the Potters. Instead Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Nani should all play from the start, while it will be interesting to see if reported summer departure Ji-Sung Park gets any playing time on what may be his last United appearance.

England’s bionic man, Wayne Rooney, who only weeks ago was a major injury concern in the press to be fit for the World Cup, will spearhead the home forward line for the final time this season. Playing in his favoured central role throughout the campaign Rooney has simply been glorious this season, and it would be no surprise to see England’s best player add to his 26 goals tally in the league.

The much unloved Dimitar Berbatov should also get the nod to start in the United attack, while turning to the defence all eyes will be on Rio Ferdinand’s performance as the current England captain struggles to prove himself worthy of a starting place in South Africa. Also of interest will be the manner in which Nemanja Vidic plays out the final ninety minutes of the season considering the long-standing rumours linking the Serb with a move away from Old Trafford this summer.

Just as it looked like Stoke’s terrific season would peter out unceremoniously following a recent run of two draws and two defeats, including a 7-nil whooping at Chelsea, the Premier League’s seasoned survivors pulled out a brilliant 1-nil away win at Fulham on Wednesday night.

The win at the Cottage served as a wake-up call to anybody who thought that Stoke had already packs their bags for their annual vacations. Currently lying in 10th place, the Potters are caught in up a busy battle to finish the season in the top ten alongside Birmingham, Blackburn, Fulham and Sunderland, and with prize money and pride at stake on the final game of the season, Tony Pulis will be demanding his charges end the year with their heads held high.

Stoke have no new injury concerns ahead of this game, and goalkeeper Asmir Begovic is expected to remain as the last line of defence as first choice Thomas Sorensen is out for the remainder of the season with an elbow injury. Also missing, Dave Kitson’s public fallout with the Stoke manager should see the striker left out yet again.

Without any real surprises to spring at Old Trafford, the visitors will start with trusted back four of Wilkinson, Higginbotham, Shawcross and Huth, while Whelan, Delap and Whitehead will do the dogs work in midfield.

In the final third, though, Pulis has a few subtle options. Player of the season Matthew Etherington will roam the left hand side and be encouraged to whip in as many cross has he can into the mixer. And depending on whether Stoke adopt a more direct and play-to-feet style, Tuncay Sanli could break up the forward partnership of Ricardo Fuller and Mamady Sidibe.

For all Potters’ goodwill at wanting the end on a positive, the Potters are heavy underdogs to come close to getting a result at Old Trafford, having not won there since April 1976. Manchester United may end up losing the overall title, but they are still a cut above almost every other team in the division and they rarely slip up in matches like Stoke.

101gg predicts: Manchester United 4 – Stoke 0 (6.94)

Manchester United 1.12; Draw 7.06; Stoke 19.49