Alex Ferguson: 'We must keep on the coat-tails of City'
Sir Alex Ferguson is relishing the prospect of his Manchester United side facing the unique challenge presented by Stoke City at Old Trafford tonight.
After Saturday's FA Cup defeat to Liverpool, an encounter with Tony Pulis's battlers would not normally be viewed as the ideal method of recovery.
Yet, in much the same way as the Red Devils tended to overcome Bolton during the era under Sam Allardyce, when the Wanderers managed to get under the skin of all the other big clubs, they have emerged relatively unscathed in their meetings with Stoke. A draw at the Britannia Stadium in September represented the first points dropped to the Potteries outfit since they were promoted to the Premier League in 2008.
And United must go back to 1976 for their last Old Trafford loss to Stoke. "You know what Tony Pulis's team will be like, they are the same all the time," said Ferguson. "They will be 100 per cent committed and they always get stuck in. You have to cope with that. To be honest, I always enjoy it to.
"It was like when we used to play Wimbledon. No one used to look forward to playing against them but my team started to because it was a physical challenge. Stoke are a different team altogether but they still have the same qualities of never giving in."
The weekend setback has placed even more emphasis on the next few weeks, when Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham must all be faced. With the Europa League as the only other trophy United can win, focus on the domestic campaign has to be total.
Three points behind Manchester City already, United cannot afford to slip if they are to gain any advantage from their vast experience over the run-in.
"It is a big programme," said Ferguson. "From the middle of January until we go to Tottenham, it looked quite a daunting programme. But when you go back years ago in our title campaigns, we have always had periods of must-win games in a row and that is what we have. It is important to keep on City's coat-tails and hopefully, come the important part of the season, we still are."
Although Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley and Anderson are all inching closer to full fitness, it seems Nani may be out for a significant period with a foot injury. Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones are continuing to nurse ankle problems, so the main avenue of good news from the treatment table could come from Rio Ferdinand, who has returned to training after a back spasm.
Yet again this season, United find themselves having to haul themselves off the floor, just as they did after that 6-1 hammering by Manchester City in October. Defender Jonny Evans emphasised the kind of mentality that is being demanded by Ferguson.
"We responded really well after the 6-1 defeat against City and then the losses against Blackburn and Newcastle," Evans said. "We went on a great run after the City game and then after New Year we've beaten both City and Arsenal away. That's what this team does.
"Every player knows what is expected. When you're at Manchester United you know defeats like that aren't acceptable. We don't need anybody else to tell us that. We know it deep down."
MAN UNITED V STOKE
Man Utd: LINDEGAARD; RAFAEL; SMALLING; FERDINAND; EVRA; VALENCIA; CARRICK; GIGGS; PARK; HERNANDEZ; BERBATOV
Stoke City: SORENSEN; WILSON; HUTH; SHAWCROSS; WOODGATE; ETHERINGTON; WHELAN; WHITEHEAD; SHOTTON; WALTERS; CROUCH
Kick-off 8pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)
Ref M Jones (Cheshire) Odds: MU 1-4; Draw 9-2; Sto 12-1.