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Stoke City-Manchester United Preview
It's not often a club can beat Manchester United for palace intrigue, but Stoke City are doing just that after finally settling on a new manager ahead of Monday's clash between these sides at Old Trafford.
These final 16 league matches will tell whether Stoke City (5-5-12) waited too long to sack Mark Hughes, with last weekend's exit from the FA Cup taking the form of a 2-1 loss to League Two side Coventry City the nadir of the term to date.
The club announced Monday the hiring of Paul Lambert as coach, though he won't be on the touchline for this contest. Lambert, who previously managed Norwich and Aston Villa in the Premier League, has not coached since leaving Championship side Wolverhampton last spring.
'"Paul greatly impressed us with his knowledge of our squad and had a clear plan of how he would improve our results," Stoke owner Peter Coates said.
Potters ownership had targeted one-time Watford and current Espanyol boss Quique Sanchez Flores as Hughes' replacement after Derby County manager Gary Rowett signed an extension to stay with that club. But Flores, who guided the Hornets to an FA Cup semifinal appearance in 2016, said he was staying with the La Liga side at his Saturday press conference.
On the pitch, Stoke's form has been dreadful as the Potters have claimed one win in their last eight matches (1-1-6) across all competitions and enter this match at the top of the drop in 18th. Yet Stoke are just six back of 10th-place Watford, so the last four months are going to be a white-knuckle ride unless they can string together some victories.
"I think we all have to look at ourselves in the mirror," captain Ryan Shawcross told Stoke City+. "As players we haven't performed well enough, maybe the manager will look back at things and be disappointed too. The next week or so, leading in to the Manchester United game, is huge for us and we really need to look at ourselves.
"Have we been doing enough as a group? Probably not, so we have to rally around each other now, get together, stand up and produce the performances that are going to keep us in the Premier League. Thankfully we are far from adrift - we are five points from 10th place so there are positives for us to take."
Manchester United (14-5-3) can reclaim sole possession of second place in the table with a draw in this game, but like Stoke, they are part of a logjam in which a run of successive victories can impact their standings since only five points separate them from sixth-place Arsenal.
United are unbeaten in five matches in all competitions (2-3-0) since crashing out of the League Cup and left it late to advance to the fourth round of the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory over Championship side Derby County on Jan. 5. Jesse Lingard continued his fine run of form with a goal on 84 minutes, and Romelu Lukaku sealed the victory at the death with his first goal in five matches.
United went to Dubai for warm-weather training after the victory, yet it remains uncertain if Antonio Valencia has conquered the hamstring issues that have plagued him for most of the season. Ashley Young will complete his three-match ban for elbowing Southampton's Dusan Tadic in United's 0-0 draw on Dec. 31, and central defender Eric Bially remains sidelined.
Jose Mourinho also remained coy on United's pursuit of wantaway Arsenal attacking winger Alexis Sanchez, who also has Manchester City among his suitors in the January window. The United boss doesn't seem to think anything is going to happen but did note in his press conference, "We don't believe in signing a player just to do something. What we believe is some players in football world, if you have a chance to sign them - it doesn't matter if it is in January, March or July - you have to try.
"But in relation to Alexis Sanchez, I don't say a word. The only word I can say is the same that everybody says - he's a phenomenal player."
Stoke nicked a point off United in the reverse fixture Sept. 9 as Eric Maxim-Choupo-Moting's brace on either side of halftime canceled out a first-half goal by Marcus Rashford and a second-half strike from Lukaku that gave the Red Devils a short-lived 2-1 lead.
It was the third consecutive draw between the sides, and Stoke would be happy with another point given United had won the first eight top-flight matches at Old Trafford by a 25-6 aggregate scoreline before last season's 1-1 draw there.
Updated January 15, 2018