United need victory as worry sets in

Posted by Mark Payne

Sir Alex Ferguson has covered this part of the course before. Twenty years ago this week, Steve Bruce's late headers put United top with seven league games to go. The side went on the win those remaining matches and close in on the club's first title in 26 years. With seven to play this season, fewer points are required, but the principal remains the same: United need to push themselves over the line.

- Ferguson braced for Stoke test

United are lacking mojo at the moment. They have lost two matches in a row and the last three goals they scored were deflected and fortunate. The team are looking more than a little creaky and a good win is required to shake out the joints.

This time last year United travelled to Wigan, a team they enjoyed a phenomenal record against, only to lose and drop the ball in the title race fatally. The Mancunians enjoy a similarly plentiful record against Stoke, and for some the parallel is concerning.

"We're a little worried," said Antonio Valencia earlier this week. Despite the jitters running through the Ecuadorian's mind, United only need 10 points to mathematically seal the title. In reality, nine will probably suffice. After Stoke, United face West Ham at Upton Park and this week presents the opportunity to iron the doubts out of peoples' minds.

Stoke away is about as pleasant as a trip to the dentist, but there is probably not a better team to be facing at present. The Potters have lost five out of their last six and have only managed to score twice in that time. Since the turn of the year, their form has been the second worst in the division. If United don't win on Sunday, alarm bells will start to ring.

"It's one of those grounds where they have a great support and the atmosphere is always guaranteed so we have a job to do," said Ferguson this week. With games against Arsenal and Chelsea looming around the corner, it is imperative for United to take advantage of Stoke's dip in form on Sunday.

Many were disappointed to see United set out in a cautious manner at Old Trafford against Manchester City on Monday. It would be folly to do the same again. Despite Stoke's famous resilience, United have put five goals past them on more than one occasion and the same would be welcome this weekend.

Robin van Persie is more than due a goal and United's loss of form has coincided with several players going off the boil. Nani and Valencia have been indifferent of late and, with Wilfried Zaha arriving in two months' time, both are playing for the right to be at the club next season.

At least Patrice Evra is motivated: "We have to make sure we win at Stoke on Sunday and show we are the best team in England." Along with Michael Carrick and David de Gea, the Frenchman has started more games than anyone else this season. He is as keen as anybody to obtain the points needed to get the title back.

"Eventually you run out of games," is Sir Alex’s refrain around this time of year. With City playing in the FA Cup this weekend, United will run out of league games quicker. What they need are points. To get them, the players need to stop worrying and start scoring goals again. And they need to start at Stoke on Sunday.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

ESPN Conversations