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Elements can’t stop United

1152578-18080670-640-360Manchester United are unquestionably better than Lionel Messi and they proved it last night.

For years, the Argentine’s sheer brilliance has been somewhat slightly overshadowed by fans questioning whether he’d have what it takes to do it on a wet night in Stoke, and while that question remains unanswered, United proved that they can indeed negotiate the Britannia Stadium on a cold, windy night in the Potteries.

Cheap jokes and two-bob hilarity aside, it was a night when even those who don’t believe in Christmas miracles would have been hard pressed not to believe that, at this time of the year, there’s something special in the air. How else would one explain Ashley Young’s piledriver and Tom Cleverley’s promising performance, not to mention Patrice Evra’s impersonation of the left winger United have desperately missed?

We’ve come to accept that, this season, United delight and frustrate in equal measure, but last night they pushed those boundaries a little further.

For the first 45 minutes, the main – actually, scrap that, the only – highlight was the fantastic support provided by the traveling Reds, with United’s usual superb away support made even better by the bigger allocation that makes trips in domestic cups such fantastic and eagerly awaited occasions.

On the other hand, Stoke’s self-proclaimed “best fans in the league” could only muster a few boos for Ashley Young and a couple of other United players, before embarking on a gloriously cringeworthy rendition of “We only hate Man Utd”, mistakenly presuming that United fans would be flustered by the notion.

A positive start saw Young thunder a shot against the side netting after some neat link-up play by Danny Welbeck, who was again deployed up-front on his own, quickly turned into one the worst 45 minutes of football United fans, or for that matter supporters of any other club, had had the misfortune of witnessing this season.

With Stoke’s brand new approach they’ve adopted under Mark Hughes remarkably similar  to the dross they dished out throughout the Tony Pulis’ era and United’s midfield crippled by Anderson’s lethargy and Young’s wayward crossing, there was nothing to get excited about in the first half, as the game trudged along until the elements thought well of providing some entertainment.

With half an hour gone, the skies opened and the blustery wind and heavy rain that had fallen throughout the day turned into a hail storm of epic proportions that forced Mark Clattenburg to abandon the game for about five minutes, as the players took shelter in the dressing rooms. Except for Jonathan Walters, who wanted everybody to know how big a man he is and stayed out arguing his case, like a child trying to convince his dad that the water pouring down outside isn’t rain, but just somebody who’s left their tap open somewhere.

The first half resumed and ended in spectacularly boring fashion, while the away end proceeded to serenade heroes of yesteryear, from Eric to Georgie Best and Roy Keane.

Ten minutes into the second half, David Moyes decided that he had had enough of Anderson and finally replaced him with Javier Hernandez, who joined Welbeck up-front, while Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley dropped slightly deeper in midfield, as United adopted a traditional 4-4-2.

Cleverley has often received a lot of justified criticism this season – I, for one, have been guilty of such sin multiple times – but tonight the 24-year-old displayed the enterprise and purpose that we thought had gone from his game. Not only did Cleverley always seem to run with a precise plan in his mind, he was also considerably astute in possession and willing to leave the foot into a tackle.

Hernandez’s arrival brought a new edge to United’s game and the Reds were ahead within five minutes.

Cleverley’s short free kick found Young, who slip the ball to Hernandez before unleashing a thunderous strike that brought the return pass past Thomas Sorensen, while the momentum carried Young into the delirious away fans and, one can only hope, onto better performances in the future.

Young needed the goal, while Patrice Evra has developed a strange habit of scoring them for fun this season and United’s captain on the night did not disappoint when, with just over ten minutes to go, he finished a neat passing move by waltzing into Stoke’s box before curling one into the far post with his weaker foot, a la Norman Whiteside.

That was as good as it got for United, who will now face Sunderland in the semifinal.