Fletcher: Experience gives United the edge

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Goal difference is all that separates the two Manchester clubs at the top of the Premier League table this morning, but United midfielder Darren Fletcher yesterday highlighted a more significant difference between the sides, one that he believes could be decisive in the months ahead.

Victory over Stoke City at Old Trafford today would put Sir Alex Ferguson's side three points clear of their local rivals with a game in hand.

On the day Sampdoria confirmed they have taken Federico Macheda on loan from United for the rest of the season, Fletcher said United's experience of having won the title for three years out of the last four will be a key factor. The Scot said: "Experience is important in the last few months. We have experienced what it takes on a title run-in. You need last-minute goals and you have to grind out results at different times. We also know how to respond from a Champions League game. That is something Manchester City, in particular, have not been through yet. It is all new to them."

With Arsenal proving erratic, defending champions Chelsea having lost their way, and City and Tottenham Hotspur both new to the race, United are favourites to win their 19th championship, one more than Liverpool.

Unbeaten in the league so far this season, the leaders are likely to be without Wayne Rooney for today's game, the England striker having picked up an ankle injury during Saturday's victory at West Bromwich Albion. Javier Hernandez will deputise if Rooney is omitted. Nani is available after a recent hip complaint.

Fletcher said that he expects a tough battle against Stoke but added that Tony Pulis's side can also play good football: "We know what to expect from Stoke. You're in for a battle and you have to earn the right to play.

"That is not to neglect the football players they have. Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant like to get at you and dribble. Tuncay and Ricardo Fuller are good, attacking-style players who like the ball at their feet, too."

Stoke's record signing Kenwyne Jones scored his first goal in six games in Saturday's 2-0 victory over Everton and Pulis revealed that the striker has been coping with a family tragedy.

Pulis said: "Although Kenwyne's performances maybe dipped a little bit, we have great belief in him. He has had an issue off the field, but we have let him deal with it himself."

Jones said: "When it comes to football it takes your mind off stuff. Problems are part of life and sometimes it does tend to spill over into football."