Martin Smith: We've done the hard work ... now we must reap the rewards
WHEN Stoke take to the pitch at Old Trafford on Saturday the season will be nine weeks old, yet we've still only played three home games.
In fact, it will be 71 days since our season opened at Reading on August 18 before we play our fourth home league game – against Sunderland a week on Saturday.
Seriously, whoever came up with the fixture schedule this season needs asking what the hell they were thinking.
The root of the problem is, of course, the fact we've already had two breaks for international matches, the most wretched of all of the needless innovations FIFA and UEFA have foisted on football in order to alienate and annoy ordinary fans.
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The bread and butter of the beautiful game is club football, but time and again we have unwanted breaks forced on us, which see fans sitting around twiddling their thumbs or trying to feign interest in a game against San Marino, while 95 per cent of the players are also left kicking their heels.
When we do finally return to action this weekend, we have that very juicy trip to Old Trafford to look forward to.
We've made a solid start to the season and have already managed to thwart the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, and gone within a few minutes of doing likewise to Chelsea, but taking on Manchester United will be our toughest challenge yet.
Notwithstanding the fact they've made a flying start to the season, United away is a fixture which rarely brings us any joy.
We've been well-beaten in all four of our Premier League visits to Old Trafford.
Mind you, our record there is nowhere near as bad as the one we have suffered at Anfield.
I can recall two Stoke City victories at Old Trafford, in 1972 and 1977, admittedly against United teams nowhere near as prominent and powerful as they are today.
And I was there myself in December 1980 when we drew 2-2 after surrendering an early two-goal lead.
As daunting a prospect as this weekend undoubtedly is, it's not an impossible challenge. We just have to take heart and inspiration from the way we played at Chelsea.
If we can push the Blues all the way at Stamford Bridge – even go close to actually winning the game – then there's no reason why we shouldn't approach our Man U mission in the same way.
We'll be expected to lose, so what do we have to fear? Miracles do happen, dreams do come true and the seemingly impossible is actually possible. Just ask the Blackburn fans who went there last season.
If we play to the very best of our ability and take what few chances come our way, then who knows what might happen?
The key for us is to get our tactics and our team selection right. We have to be defiant and unwavering in defence, combative in midfield and ready to pounce in attack.
It's highly probable Tony Pulis will stick with the 4-5-1 formation which he has favoured lately.
If he does, then every single Stoke player will need to be at their very best to shut down Sir Alex Ferguson's team.
Chances will be few and far between, and Peter Crouch will once again be ploughing a lonely furrow up front.
One player we won't be able to call into action will be Jermaine Pennant, who has been allowed to go on loan to Wolves.
It's all supposed to be to help him get a few games under his belt before pushing for a first-team return at Stoke, but my own feeling is that it'll be a case of "out of sight, out of mind" for TP.
It's still less than 18 months since Pennant was an inspirational figure in the Stoke side who reached the FA Cup final playing the best football we've seen since promotion.
His fall from grace has been as sudden as it has been depressing, because we just don't seem to get the same volume of balls into the opposition box when he doesn't play – and I'd happily bet money on that being a fact. Our dead-ball delivery has also suffered and is nowhere near as deadly.
Pennant's demise and Matty Etherington's ongoing injury/fitness problems have taken something away from what we had towards the end of the 2010/11 season.
As much as the squad have progressed since then, it's still sad to see the two players who were forcing the pundits and critics to reappraise their negative view of Stoke now rarely playing a part in the team.
Of course, the manager works with his players every day and knows what he wants from them, as well as which selections he believes will achieve the best dynamic on the field of play.
People like me can second guess him all day long, and also make a case for our own favourite players, but TP has a job to do.
One defeat so far from a very tough set of opening fixtures would suggest he's doing it very well.
If we can make that one defeat from eight games after Saturday's United encounter then we'll all be beaming from ear to ear and eagerly looking forward to a second set of eight fixtures which include matches against Sunderland, Norwich, QPR, West Ham, Fulham, Newcastle, West Brom and Aston Villa.
Yes, we know there are no easy matches in the Premier League, but some are undeniably a lot less difficult than others.
So after doing as well as we have done in the opening phase of the season, we would have every right to expect our campaign to really take off in the run-up to Christmas.