Wounded United out to prove worth at Stoke

2013-04-12 08:46

London – Champions-elect Manchester United are eager to prove that they remain the team to beat in the Premier League as they travel to Stoke City this weekend.

With a 12-point lead over second-place Manchester City, United already seem assured of the title, but their 2-1 loss at home to their derby rivals on Monday brought an 18-match unbeaten run to an end.

City’s victory at Old Trafford, secured with a glorious late goal from substitute Sergio Aguero, also suggested that United are not as imperious as their advantage at the table summit might suggest.

Manager Alex Ferguson has seen his side’s form slump since they fell to Real Madrid in the Champions League, and the defeat by Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-finals accompanied by a pair of limp league victories over Reading and Sunderland.

Stoke would appear to represent perfect cannon fodder, having slipped to within three points of the relegation places after a run of games in which they have picked up just five points from a possible 36.

However, United’s visits to the Britannia Stadium since Tony Pulis’ side returned to the top flight in 2008 have been keenly contested affairs, with last season’s equivalent fixture ending in a 1-1 draw.

United left-back Patrice Evra says that his team will be “ready for the fight”, and after the disappointment of defeat in the derby, he says Ferguson’s side will not want for motivation.

“I hear a lot of people talking about us, saying we didn’t deserve the 15-point lead,” said Evra.

“But if we are here it is because we are working hard and we deserve to win this title. We have to make sure we win at Stoke on Sunday and show we are the best team in England.”

City are not in league action due to their FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea on Sunday, and with Tottenham Hotspur also inactive, Arsenal can leap two places to third if they win at home to Norwich City.

Arsenal have bubbled below the Champions League places all season, but having won seven of their last eight games, they are mounting the kind of late surge that allowed them to secure a place in the top four last season.

Norwich are heading in the opposite direction, having won only once in 15 games, and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has called on his side to stamp their authority on the game from the start.

“Once we are in front, the teams who usually defend against us have to come out and that gives us space to develop our game even better,” he told the Arsenal website.

“That shows you that when we start our games in a positive way, we can dominate.”

Everton, who begin the weekend in sixth place, will also hope to make ground on the Champions League contenders.

A late goal by Gylfi Sigurdsson saw David Moyes’ side held 2-2 at Spurs last weekend, but victory at home to second-bottom Queens Park Rangers on Saturday will leave them just three points adrift of the top four.

Both QPR and Reading, who host Liverpool, have been cut adrift at the foot of the table, with the London club now seven points from safety and the Royals a point further back at the foot of the table.

Fixtures

Saturday (1400 GMT):

Arsenal v Norwich City, Aston Villa v Fulham, Everton v Queens Park Rangers, Reading v Liverpool, Southampton v West Ham United

Sunday

Newcastle United v Sunderland (1100 GMT), Stoke City v Manchester United (1305 GMT)

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