Manchester United determined to prove a point
Stoke City face the daunting prospect of facing a Manchester team that have been stung by the questioning of their right to massive league lead
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 City 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 suggests that United are not as imperious as their lead on the table might suggest.
Manager Alex Ferguson has seen his side slump since they fell to Real Madrid in the Champions League, with defeat by Chelsea in the FA Cup accompanied by limp league victories over Reading and Sunderland.
Stoke would perfect cannon fodder, having slipped to within three points of the relegation places after a run of games in which they have 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 tight affairs, with last season's game ending in a 1-1 draw.
Patrice Evra said United would be "ready for the fight", and not want for motivation.
"I hear people talking about us, saying we didn't deserve the 15-point lead," Evra said. "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."
City are not in league action due to their FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea tomorrow, and with Tottenham Hotspur also inactive, Arsenal can leap to third if they beat 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 from the start.
"Once we are in front, the teams who defend against us have to come out and that gives us space to develop our game," he said. "That shows you that when we start our games in a positive way, we can dominate."
Everton, sixth, will also hope to make ground on the Champions League contenders. A win at home to Queens Park Rangers today will leave them just three points below the top four.
Both QPR and Reading, who host Liverpool, wallow at the bottom, with the London club now seven points from safety and the Royals a point further back.
Sunderland, out of the relegation zone on goal difference, face a fiery trip to Newcastle tomorrow lunchtime.
Paolo Di Canio's reign as Sunderland manager began with a 2-1 loss at Chelsea last weekend, but goalkeeper Simon Mignolet says the outspoken Italian has already made his presence felt at the Stadium of Light.
"He wants us to do everything together, just the same as the tactical work he does on the pitch. He wants us to move as a group, as a unit, and he wants us to win games not by individuals, but as a whole team," the Belgian said.