Manchester United moved three points clear of rivals Manchester City at the head of the Premier League after a narrow win over Stoke City on Tuesday night. Javier Hernández in the opening period and then Nani after the break scored for United as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side laboured to a narrow victory over the Potters at Old Trafford.
Once again this was far from a vintage United performance, although the goals that won the tie were of the highest quality. Perhaps not as fortunate as the win over West Bromwich Albion on Sunday, where United claimed an unlikely victory, but rarely can Ferguson have possessed such as paucity of options in midfield.
Indeed, at times in the second period Stoke threatened what West Brom actually achieved at the weekend and bettered the United in the centre of the park.
This, as so often this season, was just about enough for Ferguson’s outfit, which now leads cross-town rivals Manchester City by three with a game in hand. City visits Arsenal tomorrow in what could prove a pivotal result for either side, with Chelsea now nine points behind United.
Despite the poor showing against the West Brom, Ferguson opted to rest key players for the Potters’ visit. Edwin van der Sar, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand sat out the tie, in front of a large number of empty seats at Old Trafford – not for the first time this season.
If Ferguson’s decision to rest key players was of little surprise given the visitors’ poor record in Manchester, then picking Darron Gibson ahead of Michael Carrick and Anderson in central midfield was more generous. The Irishman has seen little action of late – and has produced little with what he has – but Ferguson admitted he had one eye on Sunday’s FA Cup third round tie with Liverpool.
“It was a difficult kind of match,” admitted United boss Ferguson.
“Stoke are such a determined bunch of lads nad never give in but we produced some good moments and I was pleased with our own commitment, which was very good.
“We made some changes tonight to keep the squad motivated and also to give some players game time. January is going to be a big month for us. We’ve got Liverpool on Sunday and Tottenham the next week, and the rearranged game with Blackpool.”
Initially, the changes had little effect on United, with Ferguson’s side well on top in the opening exchanges, even if chances came at a premium. Indeed, with the Tony Pullis’ outfit packing midfield and hitting Kenwyne Jones with direct balls, the onus remained on United to control the match tempo.
Gibson, with long-range efforts first from the edge of the area and then even further out, went close for the hosts as Ferguson’s side dominated proceedings during the opening quarter.
Meanwhile, Stoke offered little going forward, with Jones isolated and few runners breaking ahead of the ball.
Yet, for all United’s dominance the home side could not turn pressure into clean strikes at goal during much of the opening half-hour in what threatened to become a frustrating match.
Then Nani, returning from a hip injury that kept the Portuguese winger out of the festive programme, created the opening goal, firing into the near post for Hernández to finish with the deftest of flicks. The goal was typical Hernández, born of the player’s pace over the first 10 yards and ability to improvise a finish with his heel.
But much against the run-of-play Stoke equalised just five minutes into the second half. Dean Whitehead took advantage of lax marking by United captain Nemanja Vidic to head home Sanli Tuncay’s excellent left-wing cross.
Whitehead almost gifted United an instant return, putting Dimitar Berbatov through with a loose backpass only for former Red Ryan Shawcross to recover superbly. His defensive partner Robert Huth then shut out Hernández with the Mexican close to another goal.
The goal brought life to the visitors’ play that had not previously been evident. Suddenly Etherington gave width, Rory Delap threatened more penetrative runs from midfield and Jones offered a genuine target.
Stoke’s hope lasted barely 10 minutes though before Nani demonstrated the increased value he offers to United in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era. Exchanging smart passes with Hernández, Nani cut inside from 20 yards and fired past Asmir Begovich high into the Stoke ‘keeper’s right-hand corner with half an hour to go
It was enough – just enough – to claim victory as United pressed for a third but failed to deliver.
“It was a great run from Chicho on the first one. I keep telling strikers to get across that front post and he’s excellent at it and of course Nani’s goal was sensational,” added Ferguson.
Indeed, the positives lie in the result and superb goals, rather than United’s performance, which rarely excelled. Yet, in this season of mediocrity from so many of the leading sides, United remains in pole position to take a 19th domestic title come May.
United – 442 – Kuszczak; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Gibson (Carrick 78), Fletcher, Giggs; Berbatov, Hernández (Owen 78).
Stoke – 451 – Begovic; Huth, Collins, Shawcross, Wilkinson; Tuncay, Wilson, Whitehead, Delap (Walters 69), Etherington (Pennant 68); Jones (Fuller 75).
Attendance – 73,401
Man of the Match – Nani
Possession: United 58% – 42% Stoke
Attempts: 18 – 5
On Target: 11 – 4
Corners: 6 – 1
Fouls: 6 – 11