After a lacklustre performance in Monday night’s defeat to Manchester City, Sir Alex Ferguson looked for his side to get back on track, starting with a trip to Stoke, on a Sunday where the gap could be extended to 15 points, with second-placed City due to play in the FA Cup semi-final.
On a blustery day in the Midlands, Manchester United lined up with David De Gea in goal, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic sat in front of him. Phil Jones took place at right back, with Patrice Evra on the left. In a very attack-minded line up, Shinji Kagawa, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia made up the midfield, with Javier Hernandez and Robin Van Persie leading the line up front.
The game got off to the best possible start. Within 5 minutes, United had won a corner. Robin Van Persie swung it in, causing a scramble within the box, Carrick eventually toe-poking it past Begovic to give his side a quick 0-1 lead, capping off a bright start from the whistle. From there. United continued to dominate possession as the home side struggled to make their way into the game. United with some quick play, looked to get forward and pressured the opposition defence, although struggling to find a way to test the keeper. Rooney fired off a shot from distance that was parried but otherwise Stoke were able to hold off United’s advances. As the half progressed, the hosts started to press United on the ball more, challenging them in their own half as they started to settle. Tackles were flying in on both sides as the wind blew hard as United went in at half time with the one goal lead.
United started the second half with a golden chance to double the lead. Hernandez received the ball out on the right and held off the challenges coming his way before whipping a pass through to Van Persie in the box on the left, who then fired a shot at goal, only to find the side netting. Walters fired over the bar soon after and Adam shot at De Gea, but the Spaniard held on to it well. With just over an hour played, Robin Van Persie was found down the left again, with Wilkinson in pursuit, the Dutchman pulled back and as a result Wilkinson tripped him up, the referee not hesitating to give the spot kick. Van Persie stepped up, delayed with the wind blowing the ball of the spot. Finally, he fired low into the corner, beating Begovic and doubling the lead, the Dutchman running over to Sir Alex to celebrate.
There were penalty shouts when Nemanja Vidic, marking Jones slipped up, with Jones tripping up over him as he back tracked, but the referee chose not to award anything. Welbeck replaced Hernandez with over 12 minutes to go as United looked to keep possession with the game drawing to a close. They were able to see out the game without much trouble as a scrappy game was seen out 0-2, extending the gap at the top to 15 points and bringing United’s march towards the title back on track.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) A side with attacking intent
It would be fair to say that United fans were positively salivating at the potential when the line up to face Stoke was announced. A side that included Rooney, Hernandez, Van Persie and Kagawa was plenty to get excited about, and left many wondering exactly how they would line up. In the end it appeared Kagawa was out on the left and Rooney was deep in the midfield. It was a sign of United’s intentions for the game in what was always going to be a stern test. On a blustery day, Pulis’s side, despite their poor run of form, was always going to be a danger as they look to avoid slipping into the relegation zone at this stage of the season.
Although it was not a tidy game, the visitors started positively and did well to score from the corner and held off Stoke’s pressure well when they came into the game more in the first half.
In all it was a scrappy affair, with plenty of tackles and a referee that was willing to let the game go on and was reluctant to pull out the cards. However, Sir Alex’s side were up to the test and saw the game out professionally, doing what was needed to get the 3 points. For many within the side and for the United faithful, it was also likely a time to breathe a sigh of relief, as, despite the large lead at the top of the table, some nerves may have come into play, with thoughts of last season’s failure still fresh in the mind.
2) Rooney in midfield, a quality showing
Sunday was not the first time Rooney had been seen in midfield. However, amongst all the speculation, the questions over his fitness and future, there was encouragement to be taken from his efforts. Playing deep, his distribution was high quality and alongside Carrick worked hard to control the midfield. He showed great energy and was ultimately very effective on the day.
3) The drought is over….
There will be some that will say Van Persie’s drought is still not over as he has not scored from open play yet. It is clear that his finishing has not been as deadly as it was earlier in the season. This could be for a multitude of reasons including the fact he has been used so heavily as well as the possible nerves associated with closing in on a title. However, his contributions to the side should not be in doubt, and although he seems to be lacking a bit of confidence in front of goal as shown on Sunday, he stepped up and placed a well taken penalty past Begovic to seal the game for the side.
As he ran over and nearly charged down Ferguson celebrating the goal one got the impression it was a huge moment for the striker and almost a weight lifted off his shoulders.
4) Vidic and Ferdinand – The reassuring pair
With Vidic and Ferdinand in front of De Gea, United did well with Stoke pressurising the side more as the game went on. It made for a game where De Gea was never really tested but the back four were pressed at times. They coped well in the end. One incident that came to mind is when Jones went over when Vidic slipped. Some will debate whether it should have been a foul when Vidic slipped, and whether it was a penalty at all when it could be said it occurred just outside the area.
5) West Ham next, another tough fixture
Next up is West Ham on Wednesday, at Upton Park. Another potentially tough game, it could be one of those games where the result will need to be ground out, a show of grit to get through. At this point, it is about being professional and getting the job done. WIll Cleverley get the start? Could we see Rooney take up position in the midfield again? What of Kagawa? The midfielder had one of his better games out on the left in a season where his position in the side is yet to be worked out. One imagines Sir Alex will do a bit of rotation to the side, but with no other competitions, one can be sure it will be a strong one all the same.