An advert for sexy football it wasn’t, for United were about as entertaining as a night out in the Potteries, but it was exactly the professional response needed after a couple of unimpressive displays, culminating in Monday’s defeat against City.
If doubts had crept in after the defeat in the derby, United kept their nerves under control wonderfully well as they took yet another step towards reclaiming the title. A small step it might be, but many had red-flagged today’s trip to Stoke as a potentially dangerous one.
Having come under some criticism in the aftermath of the derby by those who felt that United’s overly cautious approach had cost them a huge opportunity to wrap up the title, Ferguson replied with a formation including three strikers – albeit one, Rooney, deployed in midfield – one attacking midfielder and a winger – of sorts, as Valencia’s regress has now reached a ridiculous level – while Phil Jones was confirmed in defense, this at time at right-back though, as the returning Nemanja Vidic partnered Rio Ferdinand in the middle of the back-four.
United were off to the best possible start when, with barely four minutes gone, Michael Carrick toe-poked the ball past Asmir Begovic after Stoke had made a meal of what had looked a simple enough clearance following a corner from Van Persie.
It was Carrick’s first Premier League goal of the campaign, but it failed to spark game into life, for Stoke’s mono-dimensional tactic (read: hit and hope) never threatened United who, despite the abundance of attacking players on the pitch failed to create anything of their own.
Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney saw a lot of the ball, but both were too far away from goal to turn their possession into an attacking threat, but at least the dullness took the sting out of the home crowd, making United’s afternoon a lot easier than expected.
Stoke fans, so often lauded as a twelfth man, were indulging in the customary routine fans of small clubs adopt when hosting United – airplane gestures alternated to chants of “We support our local team” – as they tried to contain the growing frustration stemming from their side’s ineptitude.
Tony Pulis’ side are so bad, than dismissing them as long ball merchants would be extremely disrespectful towards any long ball merchants. Stoke’s best chance, and De Gea’s first save, came with 81 minutes gone when Charlie Adam’s floated free-kick was palmed away by the United keeper.
After a less than impressive first half, United reemerged from the dressing room looking slightly more convinced and even managed to craft an interesting opportunity as Rooney’s superb cross-field pass found Hernandez, who then fed Van Persie with an equally beautiful ball, only for the Dutchman to fire into the side-netting.
A quarter of an hour later, United were awarded a penalty after Van Persie was brought down in the penalty area by Wilkinson – who, bizarrely, played 60 minutes with a nameless shirt after being forced into changing his shirt as result of a collision with Javier Hernandez.
The move was probably United’s finest throughout the match. Phil Jones did wonderfully well to win the ball close to his own penalty area, before feeding Valencia who unleashed Rooney on the counter attack whose pass then allowed Van Persie to force a foul from Wilkinson.
The Dutchman made no mistake from the spot, finally breaking his goal-scoring drought before running to celebrate with Sir Alex Ferguson and the United bench.
Van Persie’s first goal in the last 10 games put United out of sight, meaning they now need seven points from the last six games to clinch a 20th title, while Stoke fans were left to vent their fury as the club moves dangerously closed to the relegation zone, meaning they could be taking their on-field thuggery to Derby and Leeds next season.
Nobody is likely to miss them.
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