Lou Macari: Why Stoke City's Old Trafford trip to Manchester United isn't a foregone conclusion
I ALWAYS look forward to Manchester United v Stoke at Old Trafford – but even more so this year.
I think the scorelines from previous meetings have shown what a huge gap has existed between the teams.
And why shouldn't there be one between Stoke and clubs like United that can spend millions more in the transfer market and have spent years and years at the top end of the top division?
Slowly but surely Stoke have narrowed that gap, however, and that's why I'm hoping for a more competitive contest on Saturday.
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Stoke's results this season suggest they are maintaining their improvement when you see they were only beaten late on at Chelsea and drew at home with both Arsenal and Man City.
I don't want to put any pressure on Stoke's new signings, but it will be interesting for me to see in the flesh for the first time just what difference they are making.
Charlie Adam and Michael Owen seemed to grab a lot of the early headlines because they were the bigger names.
But my Stoke friends tell me midfielder Steven Nzonzi is the one making the biggest impression.
I'm also interested to see the American international Geoff Cameron at right-back because I hear he has fitted in well in the last few games.
He sounds like an example of the kind of player who, if he's versatile, prepared to work hard, listen, learn and show discipline for the job in hand, can make a career in the Premier League.
Despite what those who over-hype the Premier League will try and have us believe, you don't have to be a world beater to make your way in the top division.
I can tell you that United fans won't turn up at Old Trafford on Saturday just expecting their team to roll Stoke over for another three points.
They know and respect Stoke's reputation for being hard to break down and difficult to beat, so they won't be counting the points before they are in the bag.
Of United's summer signings, Robin van Persie was always going to catch the eye after joining from Arsenal.
And it's certainly a case of so far so good for the Dutchman and it's looking like £25m well spent.
He's started banging in the goals and has also knocked in a few spectacular strikes along the way.
I think he's a player who can play alongside not just Wayne Rooney, but anyone else on United's books, and that doesn't half give the manager options.
With United playing at home to Sporting Braga three days after the Stoke game, Sir Alex's team selection for Saturday is bound to be affected.
He has admitted he didn't take the Champions League group stage seriously enough last season when they failed to get through.
So I think he will even pick his 11 for Braga first, then his 11 for Stoke.
On MUTV, we always try and predict the team before each game and none of us have got the 11 right this season.
That's because Sir Alex has got 20 players to choose from and any 11 from that 20 could pop into the starting line-up.
Tony Pulis doesn't have that luxury, but he certainly has a stronger-looking team and squad than in years gone by.
That's a measure of the steady progress he and Peter Coates have made to ensure Stoke didn't crash and burn before ending up back in the second tier like many before and after them have done.
As an ex-United player, Ryan Shawcross will be looking forward to Saturday's game more than most.
And hopefully for Stoke's sake he will be boosted by that call-up to the England squad for the games against San Marino and Poland over the past week.
I don't think he'll get any further than the substitutes' bench again in Poland tonight, but we'll wait and see.
It wouldn't surprise me to see Poland win in Warsaw this evening, but if I was putting money on it I'd go for a score draw.
As for Belgium v Scotland… Belgium!
Wales are on a high after beating us on Friday, but not enough to get a result in Croatia. though. This is the worst Republic of Ireland team I've seen for years. They will be shell-shocked by that 6-1 drubbing by the Germans in Dublin, but surely they can go and win in the Faroe Islands?
I can see Northern Ireland being a tough nut to crack in Portugal, but once the home side get that first goal I can see them showing their quality by winning 2-0.