Stoke City-Manchester United Preview
It was like a dream scene of champagne and caviar for Manchester United on Friday.
There was Wayne Rooney with a fabulous curling shot around a defender and inside the far post from 18 yards for a goal, there was Anthony Martial using his speed to pull apart the defence, and there was Juan Mata darting here and there finding those holes, providing spark to an otherwise lifeless offence.
The FA Cup victory may have given manager Louis van Gaal a respite from the rumours of his job security, but they will quickly return should the nightmares that plague United's attack at Old Trafford resurface Tuesday versus Stoke City.
Manchester United (10-7-6) looked like the Manchester United of old in a 3-1 victory over Championship side Derby County to reach the round of 16. Rooney's goal was a thing of beauty, Daley Blind's go-ahead tally in the 65th minute the result of a smart, instinctive run into the box by the Dutch midfielder to meet Jesse Lingard's cross, and Mata's late strike after Martial did the dirty work ensured a deserved victory. It's not something often said of the Red Devils of late, and a quieting of the din of noise around van Gaal and his combative stances against the media over his much-discussed status.
"I liked the performance in the first half, it had a lot of confidence and that is back which is very important," van Gaal told MUTV. "The second half was even better, we created a lot of chances and we scored goals. But also we created more chances to score goals. I am a very happy coach."
The bigger picture, however, puts this victory in a more proper perspective. It's just the fourth win in United's last 14 matches across all competitions, and a caveat could be applied to each victory.
They defeated a Swansea City team rife with dysfunction under a caretaker manager, needed a second-half stoppage-time penalty by Rooney to beat League One side Sheffield United at home, and Liverpool had the better of chances before Rooney again delivered late heroics at Anfield.
And Friday's victory came over a fifth-place second-tier side whose lone win in their last six matches came against a Hartlepool United squad struggling to stay out of the cellar in League Two. Still, it's better than the Red Devils needing a replay at Old Trafford or the other alternative, which very well could have left van Gaal unemployed by either his doing or the club's.
"Of course a win is always a boost but you have to take it game by game and step by step," Blind said. "There is an important game on Tuesday coming up. We have to move on from this and keep the confidence up."
And there lies the rub - the lack of confidence that permeates through United at hallowed Old Trafford, belying their fifth-place status that has them 10 points adrift of front-running Leicester City and five behind fourth-place Tottenham.
Whether it be nerves dealing with the pressure from an agitated fan base, a bunkering opposition's defence, a lack of luck, anything and everything, goals haven't been few and far between in the first halves of home matches for Manchester United the past four months.
They've been non-existent.
Manchester United have not scored a goal in the first 45 minutes at home over their past 11 matches, an agonising and astounding stretch of 506 minutes since Mata tallied in their Champions League victory over VfL Wolfsburg on Sept. 30. Though in their defence, they have conceded just once in the first half of those 11 contests.
In their last six home matches, they have placed only 14 shots on target - five by Rooney. Six of those 14 came against the Swans, and United went 2-2-2 in those games.
It's part of a season-long paucity of goals at an unprecedented scale. United are 10th in the league in scoring at 1.22 goals per game, on pace to be their worst in the Premier League era, set at 1.53 in 2004-05.
And one can only imagine United's despair had Rooney not been in such fine form. The talisman has six goals - three of them match-winners - and an assist in the previous six matches. He's now six goals shy of matching Sir Bobby Charlton's franchise standard of 249.
Stoke City (9-6-8) are quite familiar with a lack of goals. Their 24 are the fewest among the top 13 teams in the table, and the Potters limp into Old Trafford looking for any positives to end a grueling four-match, 10-day road swing. After a 3-0 loss at Leicester on Jan. 23 and being dumped from the League Cup semifinals on penalties at Liverpool last Tuesday, Mark Hughes' fatigue-riddled team were eliminated from the FA Cup on Saturday with a 1-0 loss at Selhurst Park to Crystal Palace.
Hughes made eight changes to his starting XI from Tuesday's loss, offering evidence he's more concerned with top-flight points than progressing. Condemned to a loss by Wilfried Zaha's 17th-minute goal for Palace, though, left the Potters' boss with a bitter taste heading back into league play.
"It's been a difficult week for us all this week to be perfectly honest," Hughes told Stoke City Player. "I can't fault the players' effort, they gave it a real go, but we just lacked that quality that we needed."
Stoke's backline, already missing injured talisman Ryan Shawcross, will be further thinned after Marc Wilson had to be carried off the pitch late with what is believed to be a knee ligament injury. Geoff Cameron is still dealing with an ankle injury and his status is unknown.
Stoke City ran out comfortable 2-0 winners in the reverse fixture on Boxing Day, getting goals from Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic seven minutes apart inside the first half-hour. The Potters - attempting to complete their first double over United since 1952-53 - are 0-1-13 at Old Trafford since a 1-0 victory in the First Division in 1975-76 and have been outscored 22-6 in losing all seven of their Premier League matches at The Theatre of Dreams.