Manchester United must quickly put their weekend FA Cup exit out of their minds as their Premier League title challenge resumes with the visit of Stoke City on Tuesday evening.
The Red Devils were floored by a late Dirk Kuyt winner as bitter rivals Liverpool edged them 2-1 in a pulsating fourth-round tie at Anfield on Saturday.
Having also bowed out of the Carling Cup and the Champions League, the success of United’s season now rests squarely on whether they can overhaul league leaders Manchester City, regardless of how they fare in the Europa League.
The Red Devils, who currently trail their noisy neighbours by three points, are priced at 11/50 in bwin’s 3Way football betting market, with the draw at 19/4 and Stoke available at 12/1.
But despite such strong favouritism, the truth is they have every reason to be wary of a Potters team who had a far more comfortable FA Cup weekend, coasting to a 2-0 victory at Derby County.
In days gone by, there was a rather cliched acceptance among pundits that United react like a wounded animal to a defeat as demoralising as the one at Anfield – but they have rarely shown that kind of mental strength this term.
There are questions marks hanging over several areas of their squad ahead of the clash at Old Trafford, not least in the creative department, with Nani and Wayne Rooney injury doubts and Ashley Young definitely out.
It is unclear what kind of contribution veteran midfielders Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes can make on Tuesday after both started against Liverpool, while their defence has looked shaky for several weeks now.
United have conceded 11 goals in their last six outings in all competitions and are clearly missing the authority of skipper Nemanja Vidic – a problem exacerbated by the sporadic appearances of Rio Ferdinand.
Another punt to consider is for more goals to be scored in the second half than the first at odds of 11/10. There have been 47 goals scored in 11 league fixtures at Old Trafford this term and a whopping 32 of them have arrived after the interval.
There is also the gradual improvement of Stoke to factor into the equation. Tony Pulis’ men were given painful lessons on their first two Premier League visits to Old Trafford – going down 5-0 and then 4-0 – but a narrow 2-1 defeat last term was an indication that they are closing the gap.
On top of that, they held United to a 1-1 draw at the Britannia Stadium earlier this season, finally halting a run which had seen them lose their previous six meetings with the champions.
That’s not to say the Potters will justify those whopping 12/1 odds with a shock victory, as their recent record in away trips to the top sides is, frankly, woeful.
They are yet to win at United, Chelsea, Arsenal, City or Liverpool since returning to the top flight and have failed to muster even a single point from a combined 11 visits to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates. It is for that reason I still fancy United to get over the line – just not in vintage fashion.
Pulis will set his team up to frustrate the Red Devils, as he did to hold Liverpool to a goalless draw at Anfield a couple of weeks ago, and considering United’s recent frailties and the possibility of some heavy legs, the home faithful may well be in for a nail-biting evening.
Even money on Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to triumph in a game featuring less than four goals is well worth some investment, especially considering Stoke’s shocking return of just eight goals in 11 away league games.
Another popular option will probably be United to win 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0 at 13/10, but backing any defence featuring Jonny Evans to keep a clean sheet is not my cup of tea at such short odds.
After all, Ferguson’s troops have already conceded 14 goals in their 11 home matches in the Premier League this term and may well be troubled by the Potters’ direct approach and the aerial presence of Peter Crouch.
Stoke are priced at 11/10 to grab at least one goal, while Crouch (who scored in that 1-1 draw at the Britannia in September) and strike partner Jon Walters can be backed at 9/4 and 5/2 respectively to notch at any time.
On the United side, keep an eye out for their line-up and get your money on Javier Hernandez to score first at 7/2 or any time at 17/20 if he is included from the start.
The Mexican has endured an injury-hit campaign thus far but has scored three goals in his last three games against Stoke and will be desperate to prove a point to Ferguson if he gets the nod.
New customers receive a free £25 bet for joining bwin.com and placing this on Hernandez to score first will bring returns of £112.50 if Chicharito does indeed break the deadlock.
Another punt to consider when using the sign-up bonus is for more goals to be scored in the second half than the first at odds of 11/10.
There have been 47 goals scored in 11 league fixtures at Old Trafford this term and a whopping 32 of them have arrived after the interval.
But I’ll be playing it safe by taking evens on a United win in a game containing under 3.5 goals as it incorporates the scorelines which are surely most likely this evening – 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 or 2-1.
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