And now Ferguson's next task: To silence the new-look Stoke

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The Independent Football

Having resolved the immediate future of Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson must today turn his mind to the real business of football management, plotting a way to win matches.

Rather lost in the maelstrom which has enveloped the club this week is the need to cut Chelsea's already ominous lead over United in the Premier League. Should the champions defeat Wolves today United will kick off at the Britannia tomorrow lunchtime eight points adrift.

Ironically, their attempt to bridge that gap will have to begin without Rooney, who was yesterday ruled out for three weeks with an ankle injury which, this time, no one disputes is genuine. It is understood to have been incurred by a challenge from Paul Scholes in training on Tuesday.

Manchester United have won all four matches against Stoke City since the latter's return to the top flight, without conceding a goal, but Stoke have found a decent vein of form after a poor start to the season. Ten points from their last five matches have lifted them into ninth, only four points behind United.

The reason, said Tony Pulis, is the impact of the fresh blood he has introduced this season in the shape of Jermaine Pennant, Kenwyne Jones and Jon Walters. "We think we have improved as a team," Pulis said. The City manager added: "I think Pennant and [Matthew] Etherington have got real good pace down the sides of the pitch and obviously Kenwyne and Walters have done well up front.

"We've got more in the team to cause people problems, so it is just whether we can perform on the day to our maximum – and hoping that we get a little bit of good luck and good fortune, and that United are maybe just off it a little bit."

United have been "off it" recently. They have not started the season with such a long unbeaten run since 1999 but there have been too many draws, four in the last five including the last three games, against Bolton, Sunderland and West Bromwich.

"It's a challenge for us to get the show back on the road," said Ferguson, "but I'm looking forward to it now – to seeing the team perform in the right way. Tony will have his team galvanised for this game. They have the noisiest support in the country, so we'll need to keep them as quiet as we possibly can.

"We have a good record there. We've had to adapt our game, and it'll be the same on Sunday. They put you to the test all right, but hopefully we can cope with that."

After being rested in midweek Rio Ferdinand will return to the side to deal with Stoke's aerial threat, the latter's tactics having changed significantly since they last beat United in a league game, in 1993. Then the diminutive Mark Stein scored both goals in a 2-1 win.

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