Relief came at the Britannia but this time it had nothing to do with Wayne Rooney’s ladies of the night. Instead, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side won away from home in the Premier League for the first time this season, breaking a sequence of three successive league draws. Javier Hernandez scored twice, including a late winner, after a week of very public turmoil.
On this evidence Rooney’s biggest challenge may not be regaining the trust of his manager, colleagues and the fans but getting back into the United side. Hernandez’ brilliant double – the first an outrageous back-header, the second a late poacher’s strike – takes the Mexican’s tally to five in five starts this season.
Yet United so nearly threw three points away again, following Sanil Tuncay’s superb 82nd minute equaliser. United, so dominant in the first half, was again careless in letting a lead slip, although the midfield’s now routine wastefulness in possession was evident.
This time, much to Ferguson’s delight, Chicharito came up with the end-product that Rooney has so often lacked this season.
“We got careless with possession,” the United boss told Sky Sports.
“They never gave in and that’s a quality this club has had for many years now.”
“He’s [Hernandez] got a great attitude to the game, he’s got a wonderful demeanour about life and wonderful manners. He speaks the language well, trains really well and he’s coming on great.”
Rooney may have been the central figure in the past week’s drama but the 24-year-old will miss the next four matches with a Paul Scholes-induced ankle injury. It mattered little as United began with Dimitar Berbatov and Hernández in attack. The pair nearly created United’s opening chance, with the Mexican heading back and across the Stoke box with Berbatov unable to latch on to his partner’s centre.
United was ahead inside half an hour though, as Nani and Patrice Evra worked a short corner, with the Portuguese’s cross headed home with the back of his head by Hernández. Brilliant, instinctive and memorable; in the Little Pea, Ferguson may well have pulled off the transfer coup of the summer.
But United ended the half fortunate to retain a full compliment after Gary Neville, on his 600th appearance for the club, espcaped a second yellow. The veteran defender was unlucky to pick up a first caution for a foul on Matthew Etherington, but only good fortune prevented a second for a wild tackle on the Stoke winger.
Tony Pullis naturally focused on the incident in the post-match media round, although the Stoke manager failed to bring up the cast-iron penalty referee Andre Marriner failed to award United for Rory Delap’s crude barge on Evra in the second period.
As the game descended to Stoke’s level in the second period, Pullis’ side clawed its way back into the game. United’s passing and composure faded badly – the third Premier League game in a row that United’s midfield has been culpable.
With the vociferous Britannia support urging its side forward, substitute Tuncay cut inside John O’Shea and smashed a wonderful left-foot drive into Edwin van der Sar’s top corner with 10 minutes to go.
With minutes to go Hernández volley just inches wide as United chased a seemingly unlikely winner. This time, however, United didn’t capitulate and with four minutes to go Hernández stabbed home Evra’s shot from six yards out.
Relief at last; an away win at last.
“We were very happy with the result. We know about Stoke’s style and are delighted,” Hernández told Sky Sports.
“I’m working a lot because I want to stay here a long time and win a lot of tournaments.”
“I jumped and saw the ball behind me and tried to head it towards the goal. I don’t remember doing it in training. It’s a good goal but the most important thing is the result.
“Here there are no heroes, it is about the team. My team-mates trust in me and all the staff too. It’s an unbelievable opportunity for me to play with the biggest team in the world.”
Messy the performance may have been but any result at Stoke is truly a team effort. In that, Rooney should take note.
United – 442 – Van der Sar; Neville (Brown 46), Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, O’Shea (Carrick 70); Nani, Scholes (Obertan 87), Fletcher; Berbatov, Hernández.
Stoke – 442 – Sorensen; Huth, Collins (Higginbotham 57), Shawcross, Faye; Wilson, Pennant (Gudjohnsen 78), Delap, Etherington; Jones, Walters (Sanli 66).
Possession: Stoke 47% – 53% United
Attempts: 6 – 12
On target: 2 – 5
Corners: 5 – 6
Fouls: 6 – 13