Louis van Gaal’s team were excellent in their last match, beating Hull City 3-0 without fuss or worry. That victory made it three wins on the trot for Manchester United, although it was the first emphatic result in that run, with the victories over Crystal Palace and Arsenal less lustrous, to be sure. But, on the face of it (and with victory against Stoke to take them within a point of 3rd place) United, shredded by injury and lopsided, seem to be finally sorting themselves out. But hold on… they looked excellent against QPR earlier in the season, a 4-0 victory which many assumed would kick them into a higher gear, which it didn’t. The hard fought win over Everton was followed by a vapid draw with West Bromwich Albion. And with Angel di Maria limping off early in the Hull victory, key injuries have simply refused to let them alone, like an immortal mosquito in a dark room during a heatwave.
Their opponents tonight, Stoke City, have likewise been tourists in the happy highs and listless lows of the English Premier League. Just looking at their last 3 results, the first of which was a super victory over Tottenham at White Hart Lane, and then the next two, bad losses to promoted Burnley and a poor Liverpool, consistency isn’t the word that comes to mind. Wins over Manchester City and Swansea are paired unappetisingly with losses against Leicester and Sunderland. So for Mark Hughes’s team, prior form seems an unreliable indication of future results. Last season, Stoke nearly stole a victory at Old Trafford, only to be foiled by a super-duper sub performance from Javier Hernandez. Additionally, Wayne Rooney and Angel di Maria are both absent through injury, which will come as a huge relief for the Stoke defence. In short, nothing is certain here, and so, let’s spirit away to the action.
In lieu of Rooney, and with Radamel Falcao still warming the pine, James Wilson started for United, the day after his 19th birthday. Elsewhere, Chris Smalling had enjoyed a fine performance in his last match, and he started again at centre back. Marouane Fellaini, rejuvenated and playing his best football for a while, was in midfield for United, alongside Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata. For Stoke, Mame Biram Diouf started up front, playing against his former team. But the assumption was that Stoke were going to strive for a solid defensive performance and, just as they had in their visit to Manchester City, hope for a goal on the break.
United were able to control possession during the opening ten minutes, but instantly realised the scale of the task ahead of them, with Ryan Shawcross and co keeping the defensive line strong and flat. A long ball up to Fellaini almost put through Herrera, but his decision to pass inwards towards Mata was misguided, a shot might have been a better decision. Speaking of bad decisions, on 15 minutes, Amir Begovic almost gave United the lead with an abhorrent pass. Under no pressure, Begovic slotted a telegraphed pass right into the path of van Persie, who squared for Herrera to shoot into a relatively open goal. He blazed over wastefully, and to say that Begovic looked relieved would be an understatement on par with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s words after he was arrested for all that murderin’; “I really messed up this time.”
But then, 5 minutes later, Herrera’s miss was forgotten, as he created the opening goal. Neat work down the left from Mata led to Herrera spearing a pearl of a cross to the far post, where the Big Belgian Bristle, the Ardent Afro, the Hirsute Hercules, Fellaini headed home. His personal resurgence continued and with it, United’s. A team as tall as Stoke will have been disappointed to concede in that way, but the quality of the delivery was hard to argue against. Stoke had threatened vaguely with some tight interplay in the opening 20 minutes, but the goal knocked the wind out of them. Stoke have earned 4 points out of a possible 36 at Old Trafford and now their task was even more difficult.
A sensational cross from Eric Pieters was inches away from Steven Ireland’s head, but Rojo cleared well with Bojan ready to tap in. Ireland and Diouf were combining well at times, and Diouf’s pace was always a danger for the defenders in red. But Stoke’s carelessness with the ball ruined their attacking ambitions before they even began, and it meant that United enjoyed 60% of possession in the opening half an hour. With only Diouf as the lone striker, and United pressing the Stoke defenders well, long clearances were rarely won by the away team.
But then, suddenly, Stoke were level. Fellaini seemed to crick his neck while kicking at a bouncing ball in midfield, and he lost possession. Bojan then collected the ball and wriggled through a heap of red shirts into the box, and when he was tackled, the ball fell to an unmarked Steven N’Zonzi. He smashed ball into the net from the edge of the area, an inch-perfect finish. Fellaini almost had another goal a few minutes later, drawing a fine save from Begovic after a scruffy pinball sequence following a free kick.
Ashley Young was finding a lot of joy running at Phil Beardsley, and was causing all sorts of dribbly havoc down the left hand side. Playing Young and Valencia as the full backs meant that United, perhaps at the risk of giving up some defensive robustness, were very progressive down the flanks. The first half ended all square.
The second half began with Stoke allowing Ander Herrera too much space in the middle. He conducted a sequence with Valencia and Mata on the right, which ended in a free kick for United, though that came to nothing. Stoke were poised to break at all times, but they seemed keen to let United lose the ball, rather than press hurriedly to win it back quickly. They pressed only when United ventured deep into Stoke territory, and even then it wasn’t exactly energetic. Also, with James Wilson anonymous, and with Falcao and Januzaj ready to come on, the pressure was only going to increase on the Stoke defenders. A moment in the 54th minute where the ball was pitched back and forth inside the Stoke box was particularly nerve-racking for Hughes and his team. It ended when Pieters was accidentally stepped on by Robin van Persie.
United remained the premier ball-hogs in the match, but Stoke were resisting them well during open play, if a little haggardly. So, accordingly, it was from a dead ball that United took the lead again. A free kick won out on the right was swooped in by Juan Mata and Marcos Rojo rose regally and may or may not have gotten a touch on the ball. Regardless, the ball nestled in the far corner, and it was 2-1.
United, comfortably back in front, were now dictating the game supremely, and the pressure piling up on Stoke seemed that of several atmospheres. Fellaini almost prodded home at the far post, and the two United full backs were putting menacing crosses in at will. Stoke’s midfield structure was falling apart, as United surged forwards, and it seemed only a matter of time before a third United goal was scored.
Respite was rare for Stoke, with Bojan’s missed free kick a small period of relief, with 21 minutes remaining. James Wilson, after having had almost no impact on the game, could have made himself a hero when he broke away with pace and directness, but he curled his shot just wide. Later, Fellaini shot inaccurately after the excellent Herrera had won the ball high up the pitch.
Crouch came on for Stoke, and Falcao came on for United. The next goal was going to be vital, for either team, if they could score it. Falcao almost did so with his first touch, but Valencia’s cross was just out of reach. Long balls up to Crouch became Stoke’s modus operandi, and they brought on Arnautovic, presumably to collect the knock-downs.
As the game aged, and Stoke forayed forward occasionally, some worried murmurs began to rumble around Old Trafford. Darren Fletcher was brought on to sure the United midfield, but theirs was still only the scarcest of leads. When Young fouled Arnautovic in a bad area, the game was into injury time. Breath was collectively held in the stadium. Bojan’s delivery was excellent, and was headed on to the far post. Diouf dived and stung a header on target but David de Gea saved brilliantly. Then, a moment later, de Gea produced something truly unbelievable. The ball was crossed in from the left, and it fell to a Stoke attacker at the far post. He smashed the ball on goal, and de Gea somehow batted it away. The ball then fell to Diouf on the other side of the area to rifle home from close range, except that Ashley Young, so criticised and unsuited to his defensive role, cleared point blank off the line. Replays showed that the ball was an inch or so away from crossing the line. What an incredible moment it was. And there, in the aftermath of that breathless finale, that the final whistle sounded signalling that Manchester United had won their fourth consecutive match.