To say they divide opinion is something of an understatement, but whatever you think of Stoke City, their achievements are undeniable.
To remain in the Premier League since their surprise promotion from the Championship in 2008 has been a fine achievement for chairman Peter Coates, who has bankrolled the club sensibly, and manager Tony Pulis, who has doggedly stuck to his beliefs and a way of playing that has meant that in four years, Stoke are yet to be involved in a serious relegation scrap.
You may think, like me, that given they are now an established Premier League club that have spent more millions than many clubs in the division on the likes of Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios, Kenwyne Jones, Charlie Adam and so on, you might expect a bit more than bullying and long-ball football, but each to their own: Stoke might make the ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon look like Total Football Holland, but their methods have proved successful thus far.
To be fair, Stoke have managed to cause a few upsets over the years and in their time in the Premier League have regularly got results against the division’s big boys, taking points on more than one occasion against Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and, as everybody knows, Arsenal, who struggle more than anyone to cope with what Stoke have to offer.
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But one name absent from that list is Manchester United, who Stoke have been unable to land a punch on during four-and-a-bit years in the top flight. It isn’t unusual for the Premier League’s lesser lights to struggle against United (particularly at Old Trafford, where teams often look like they have given up the ghost before they even get out of the changing room) but given Pulis can get his team to bridge the quality gap against the other top sides, his inability to do so against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will nag at the Welshman.
In eight meetings, Stoke have just a solitary point to show and have failed to breach the United defence in five of those fixtures. I can’t see a great deal changing when the Potters go to Old Trafford on Saturday and neither can the odds compilers at bwin, who make the home side 3/10 to pick up the points.
The draw is 4/1, with Stoke priced up at 35/4 to gain a first top-flight win against United since Christmas Day 1984 (no, really) and there is probably as much chance of Santa Claus turning up at Old Trafford on Saturday than Stoke going home with a gift-wrapped three points.
Because the fact of the matter is that Stoke just don’t win on the road. Thirteen victories from 80 away trips in the Premier League – only three of which have come against teams who finished in the top half of the relevant season – is very poor indeed and a trip to United will not be the 14th.
We know Stoke can be dogged and organised (as seen most recently at Anfield during a 0-0 draw against Liverpool), so it shouldn’t be a walkover for United. But the Red Devils will score, as they always do: you have to go back to December 2009 for the last time United failed to score at home in the league and when Stoke are going to Old Trafford with just 55 away goals in four years, you don’t fancy them to strike, even if United’s back four has been erratic this year.
But there may not be loads of goals and the 23/20 that United win with under 3.5 goals scored is the smartest move here, with winnings of £46 on offer for new bwin customers successfully backing this selection with their free £20 bet.
Stoke have only let in five goals this season and there has been an average of just 1.67 goals in their fixtures so far. I don’t see them posing much of a threat to the home goal, but they can keep the score down while United enjoy a routine, comfortable victory.