Recently Manchester United have seemed to deal solely in high drama. Arsenal were defeated by an own goal, Tottenham by 10, galvanised men, Manchester City by the latest of late strikes. Now they go to Stoke: very different from the glitz and glamour of Old Trafford on derby day but, in its own way, undeniably dramatic. The Britannia Stadium is invariably shortened to "the Brit" by Stoke supporters. There is something very British about the way the game is played there. It is football, but not as Manchester United know it. Stoke have more similarities with the Wimbledon side of two decades ago than the current champions.
This is the Premier League's tallest team against its shortest, the set-piece specialists against a side more noted for their prowess in open play. It is, in brief, the long throw against the short pass. If United are personified by Wayne Rooney, Stoke, since their promotion to the Premier League, are epitomised by Rory Delap. The threat of the midfielder, who has been dubbed "the Delapidator", was at its most pronounced in Stoke's first three months as a top-flight team. Neutering Delap involves considerable aerial ability plus a dominant goalkeeper, who is prepared to come off his line and challenge for throws; given Ben Foster's shaky form of late, he will be under scrutiny.
Techniques have evolved in dealing with Delap. There is little point congregating on the edge of the box: anyone there tends to see the ball sail over his head. Instead Stoke aim for their two strikers, generally positioned on the front and back posts respectively, while other able headers such as Ryan Shawcross and Abdoulaye Faye advance from the penalty spot. The corners, expertly taken by Liam Lawrence and Matthew Etherington, present similar dangers. If it can be deemed a rudimentary approach, it is effective especially when a raucous support generate a fearsome atmosphere. Plenty cowered at the Britannia Stadium last season with Arsenal, Aston Villa and Tottenham all defeated and Liverpool held. United won 1-0 with Carlos Tevez scoring, in the days before he was airbrushed from the club's history. It was a game when Gary Neville's grit and John O'Shea's height proved equally handy.
"I think Sir Alex has got us down as a tough game and will put his top guns out against us," said the Stoke boss Tony Pulis. While Ferguson rarely alters his team with opponents in mind Stoke, like Arsenal, may provide an exception. O'Shea qualifies as a regular anyway, but there is a case for including Wes Brown as well in a reconfigured back-four. Patrice Evra is rarely omitted, but there are reasons to opt for added inches at the back.
United's other challenge is to penetrate a Stoke defence that has conceded less than a goal a game at home since promotion to the Premier League. The reasons were illustrated by Gary Megson, whose Bolton side drew with Stoke last week and who spent a brief spell on Pulis' coaching staff two years ago. "They string four centre-halves across the back, the two [central] midfield players don't go anywhere and it makes life difficult playing against them." In other words, there is no space for opponents to exploit, no gaps that enable sides such as United to counter-attack.
Stoke's initial success has posed Pulis a dilemma: continue with the uncompromising game-plan, and risk opponents becoming gradually accustomed to Stoke's strengths (indeed, Delap's throws proved less of a threat in the Championship) or amend the approach? The signing of Middlesbrough's Turkish schemer Tuncay hints at a greater aesthetic appeal. Indeed, for Potters of a certain vintage, the flair player is a recruit more typical of Tony Waddington than Tony Pulis. With James Beattie and Ricardo Fuller both doubts, the likelihood is that Tuncay will start today.
Had events transpired differ- ently, that place could have gone to Michael Owen. Before Ferguson's astonishing move for the former Liverpool striker, Stoke had declared an interest, as had Hull. Then it appeared a reflection of how far Owen's star had fallen: now there appears something surreal about the thought of him spearheading the Stoke attack today. It could have proved a culture shock to Owen. It might be one facing Stoke. Yet with balls flying around the penalty area, the noise volume rising and a palpable sense of anticipation whenever a throw-in is awarded, it provides a type of visceral, edge-of-the-seat drama that is unrivalled in the Premier League.
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