After Saturday’s loss to Liverpool and resultant exit from the FA Cup, it was quickly back to more pressing issues in getting back to action in the Premier League.
For Tuesday night’s clash, Manchester United would be playing host to Stoke City, a physical side that could well have posed a few problems on their day. The big news ahead of the game was that Ander Lindegaard had suffered an injury and was subsequently ruled out, and while many assumed that David De Gea would therefore take over, it then became known that he had called in sick and so Ben Amos was given his Premier League debut. United welcomed back Rio Ferdinand to the starting line up, taking place alongside Jonny Evans, with Smalling and Evra on either flank. Although troubled by a number of injuries that totalled 11 senior players, Sir Alex Ferguson was able to put together a strong enough line up, with Scholes and Carrick in the centre of midfield, Valencia and Park out wide and Berbatov partnering Hernandez up front. From the beginning it looked as though it would be a long evening, with Stoke perhaps being the happier of the two sides with their start, threatening early on as United gradually got into the game. As the half progressed, the home side began to take on more possession, as well as looking to create more. Valencia looked to threaten down the right hand side whilst Scholes and Carrick looked to assert themselves in midfield, although at times there was not much in the way of service for the forwards. On 37 minutes, a breakthrough, as Jermaine Pennant brought down Park in the box in a clumsy challenge, which Hernandez coolly slotted into the bottom corner, sending the ‘keeper the wrong way. Relief for United, in a half with little in the way of fireworks. 7 minutes into the second half, a second penalty is awarded as Walters took down Valencia inside the box. A clear penalty, and the resulting spot kick was well placed by Berbatov, beating Sorenson who guessed the right way on this occasion. And so it remained, with United able to keep possession well and rarely being threatened, they looked to see the match out. News filtered through that former United player, Darron Gibson had given Everton the lead against league leaders Manchester City, drawing cheers of approval from the United faithful. The solitary goal in that game which meant United went level on points with City in the title race. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
- Was De Gea left out to protect him?
Coming up against a side like Stoke, one would have had to have considered the way they were likely to attack United when they had their chance. As a physical side that can make use of set pieces, an area in which David De Gea’s weaknesses were exploited the weekend before, it would have been safe to assume that Lindegaard would take up his place for the visit of Pulis’ side. However, with his injury, one would think De Gea would therefore play again but it transpired that he had returned home sick, despite being seen in the stands later on. Was he left out to protect him? Certainly the young Spaniard has been under the spotlight since joining, and recently intensifying with a couple of error-prone performances and against a side like Stoke who likely would have tried to exploit the frailties in his game, one cannot help but think he was left out to give him some respite. On the night, however, it probably would not have mattered. Although solid on his debut, Amos had little to do for much of the evening, but would have been glad to get his Premier League career off to a start with a clean sheet.
- Paul Scholes is getting better
As the evergreen plays more games, gaining more minutes on the field, we see his standard of play and match fitness rise with it. Being asked to play two games in a matter of days seemed a tall order for a player only just out of retirement, but against Stoke on Tuesday night he was arguably the best player on the field, controlling the midfield well with Carrick, playing some superb passes as well as being accurate. Since returning he has been a welcome addition to the line up and is probably contributing more than was expected of him when his signing was announced recently.
- Pogba – Impressive Cameo
With the news that Ravel Morrison was to make the move to London and join Championship side West Ham, we saw another of United’s starlets/contract rebels in Paul Pogba take place on the bench and indeed being given some game time, after replacing the lively Hernandez. What occurred was impressive, catching the eye of observers with good passing, looking to contribute to the attack with a couple of crosses and tried for shots himself. An interesting move to include him in the game on the day that Morrison was sold on, but fans will likely be hoping his contract situation is resolved, given the obvious potential.
- Valencia showing consistency
Antonio Valencia has come in for a lot of praise in recent games with a series of eye catching performances that have seen him terrify opposition defences, making a nuisance of himself on the right wing, providing good service and adding something extra to his game in contributing in attack. Against Stoke, his form continued, threatening down the right, putting in decent crosses as United controlled the game and looked to attack. As a result, the absence of Nani has not really been felt as the Ecuadorian’s play has proved more than capable of making up for the shortfall recently.
- Returns from injury and a tight title race
Although the return of Rio Ferdinand was dampened by the lack of De Gea and Lindegaard from the line up, it would appear United’s injury problems are slowly easing off, with the likes of Rooney, Nani and Young set to return in the near future as Sir Alex Ferguson readies his side for the business end of the season, With Manchester City unexpectedly slipping up against Everton after Gibson’s heroics, United find themselves level on points with their bitter rivals. Next up for United is the tough fixture against Chelsea, a game that will need to be won to try to capitalise on any mistake that might be made.