Of course, a win at Stoke doesn’t suddenly make everything perfect but unlike previous away games the positives far outweighed the negatives as United bagged three points in a high-octane match.
So what did Sunday’s game tell us other than Gary Neville still needs to protected from his own enthusiasm –or stupidity depending on your viewpoint- and if you’re going to invade the pitch then perhaps longer studs is a good idea?
Here’s five things we learnt from United’s match.
1. Wayne Rooney may struggle to get back in the team. Chicharito’s two goals, cemented what is already a glowing reputation as one of the best young strikers in world football. The first one a speculative back header was a real ‘ticket and raffle’ type of goal that caused as many laughs as it did cheers. The second one, a real poacher’s type of finish was the sort you’d associate with a young Michael Owen and showed that Chicharito may be young but his positional sense is already there. Dimitar Berbatov may not have got on the score sheet, he’s not found the net since that wonderful hat-trick against Liverpool, but his touches and link up play with both Chicharito and Nani were excellent. If the trio of Nani Berbatov and Chicharito continue to perform so well together then Rooney may have a real fight on his hands to get his place back.
2. Patrice Evra is looking back to his best. The signs were there against Bursaspor that the former French Captain may finally be putting his world cup angst behind him. Against Stoke he had arguably his best game of the season, revelling in his left wing role and giving the opposition defence no end of trouble. On another day Evra would have had a penalty, but regardless of the lack of favours he got from the officials, he still managed to show everyone just why he’s still one of the best players in the world. If United are going to win the title then they need Evra to continue the superb form he’s shown over the last four seasons and if the game against Stoke was anything to go by, he could well be on his way to doing just that.
3. Paul Scholes can’t do it all. It was a wayward Scholes’ pass that led to Stoke’s goal and while that’s about as rare as a decent Fergie goal celebration, it merely highlighted that the ginger prince is human after all. Scholes had a bad day at the office but if anyone’s entitled to one this season, then it’s him. Scholes wasn’t the only one guilty of a few errant passes; John O’Shea had a period where he actually seemed to forget which team he was on.
If there was one slightly worrying thing from Scholes’ poor showing it was that no one seemed able in the United midfield to take on the mantle from him and it should be noted that despite it not being his best game Scholes still seemed the only midfielder capable of, or willing to, pass the ball more than ten yards.
4. Wes Brown needs to play more often. The right back position for United has been somewhat problematic this season to say the least with no less than four players featuring there at one point or another. Gary Neville making his 600th United appearance, so well done him, was the surprise choice for this game. After it became abundantly clear that Neville was destined to get sent off in the second half, following a booking then a blatantly bookable offence that went un-carded, Neville was subbed just after the break- literally.
In the 45 minutes that followed, Wes Brown put in the sort of performance that’s been missing from United’s right back position all season. Brown was comfortable on the ball, got forward well and did his usual share of tackling. It wasn’t an amazing barnstorming display set to get the pulses racing; it was simply a good shift. However as we’ve seen far too often at United this season, ‘good shifts’ at right back have been few and far between. Rafael Da Silva has come in and done a good job but at times looked shaky, while in the interests of my own pulse rate I’m not even going to get started on O’Shea. With a game against Spurs coming up, the thought of O’Shea being asked to deal with Gareth Bale gives me nightmares.
There’s been talk of something of a tiff between Brown and Fergie, due to one too many shandies and a bit of holiday banter that went too far. If Fergie can forgive and forget though, again, then Brown back in the starting XI would be just what United needed.
5. Rio and Vidic are still the best in the business. If you honestly gave me the choice of any central defenders from world football, in the United line up, I’d still pick Ferdinand and Vidic. Sunday’s performance showed just how much United have missed the infamous ‘merker’ alongside his newly appointed skipper, as they both absolutely dominated poor Kenwyne Jones. Okay so dominating Kenwyne Jones, does not make you the best central defensive partnership in world football, in fact you could argue that it just makes you tall. However, there can be no denying that both defenders were superb throughout, not just with their heading and tackling but also on the ball. Neither could be faulted for Tuncay’s stunning goal and everything that came their way was dealt with decisively. If Rio can stay fit and admittedly that’s a big ‘if’ then United have a decent chance of catching Chelsea.