Dimitar Berbatov to be given centre stage with Wayne Rooney absent...Kicking The Habit
There is arguably no better time for Stoke City to confine their abysmal Premier League record against Sunday's visitors to the history books. Having not even scored in their four meetings with the Red Devils over the past two years, facing the 18-times league winners amidst a period of infighting and controversy should provide the Potters with as good a chance as they'll ever have to land a knockout blow and cement their position in the top half of the table.
The previous season's corresponding fixture saw Pulis elect to play a distinctly defensive five-man midfield, but with Stoke settled in a balanced 4-4-1-1 line-up, and with United possibly on the ropes, it would be careless – not to mention disheartening for the home fans – to hand the initiative to the visitors while the men in red and white stripes are playing with confidence, having lost just once in seven games after belatedly finding their customary mean streak following three consecutive defeats at the beginning of the campaign.
But that's not to say that there aren't problems in this Stoke side. Atypical awkwardness when dealing with crosses and an unusually shaky backline have seen the Potters concede the first goal in all but one of their league games this season, and the Welsh boss has a tendency to set his teams up to attack almost exclusively on the break – inviting danger.
Last time out at the Britannia, the Midlands side produced an unusually swashbuckling performance that saw them carve chance after chance against a Blackburn Rovers team that offered little in response, but the Potters only mustered a solitary goal – a bone of contention for Pulis after the game. Such wastefulness against one of Europe's finest sides, irrespective of their current instability, is unlikely to go unpunished.
A United United?
While it is tempting to think that the Red Devils will arrive in the Potteries in a state not too dissimilar to a smashed Wedgewood plate, Ferguson has a tendency to turn any intense media scrutiny into an opportunity to regroup and develop a 'siege' mentality. With the Mancunians carelessly dropping points of late, the knight of the realm will have no doubt read the riot act to the defensive line that has shipped sloppy goals in the past month and will be viewing a trip to Stoke as a chance to grab a clean sheet and narrow the five-point gap to top-of-the-table Chelsea.
United have struggled to victory in their previous two trips to the Britannia, reliant on a late Carlos Tevez winner in 2008 and dependent upon half-time substitute Ryan Giggs to change the game last year, but go into Sunday's tie in goalscoring mood as the joint second top scorers in the league, with 18 goals notched up in eight games.
However, the Red Devils aren't exactly miserly at the back having conceded 11 times this season, with recent cock-ups costing Ferguson's charges points at home to West Brom, and with four disappointing draws from their previous six games, United are far from their best - an issue compounded by the controversy of this week.
But as Rooney's stock has plummeted following a botched start to the season on the pitch and a disastrous one off it, Dimitar Berbatov has turned into something of a talisman. The Bulgarian, regularly maligned for his laid back demeanour, has netted six times in eight league games, half as many goals as he scored in 33 league appearances last year.
Similarly defying conventional wisdom, the reds of Manchester are only a yellow card behind the "up and at 'em" Potters in the Premier League disciplinary table.
Tony Pulis faces something of a selection headache – and not just because United are in town – given the absence through suspension of the largely unheralded, but practically undroppable, Dean Whitehead. The former Sunderland man is one of Stoke's most pivotal performers and plays an efficient screening role in front of the back four. His position should be filled by any one of Salif Diao, Marc Wilson or Glenn Whelan – none of whom have been given a consistent run in the first XI this season.
Long throw specialist Rory Delap is likely to slot in alongside Whitehead's replacement in the middle of a four-man midfield, with Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington offering an outlet down the flanks, putting pressure on the underperforming Patrice Evra and the still unproven Rafael, respectively.
Up top, a recurring shoulder injury for Ricardo Fuller may rule the Jamaican out, and summer signing Jonathan Walters should continue in the support role behind Kenwyne Jones. Eidur Gudjohnsen – who scored his first goal for the reserves in midweek – and Sanli Tuncay are unlikely to figure; the former is yet to make a start as he has struggled to get up to match fitness and the latter is seemingly crossing off the days in his calendar until the January transfer window opens.
Probable starting XI: Sorensen; Huth, Shawcross, Faye, Collins; Pennant, Delap, Diao, Etherington; Walters; Jones
Even prior to the revelations that he wanted out of Old Trafford, and the astonishing about-turn on Friday, Wayne Rooney might not have been guaranteed a start at the Britannia on the basis of his subdued form over the past few months, and he will certainly be out of the side on Sunday after sustaining an ankle injury caused by a heavy Paul Scholes challenge in training.
That aside, Ferguson has no fresh injury woes after seeing his side victorious in Tuesday's Champions League encounter with Bursaspor. That night saw an experimental United line-up, with Federico Macheda handed a lone striker role and Brazilian midfielder Anderson afforded the chance to regain much-needed match fitness, but expect the usual suspects to return to the starting line-up on Sunday.
Probable starting XI: Van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes, Nani; Berbatov, Hernandez