It may have been a bitterly cold night, but Manchester United fans had a warm glow after a comfortable and straight forward 2-0 win over Stoke City which saw them finish the night level on points with City at the top of the Premier League table.
Both of Uniteds goals came from the penalty spot, which were dispatched by Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov respectively who were brought in to cover the rested Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck. Wayne Rooney was still absent due to injury. Elsewhere Rio Ferdinand came in for Rafael, with Smalling moving across to Right Back and there was also a Premier League debut for Ben Amos who came to cover the injuries to both Lindegaard and David De Gea. Earlier it was reported that De Gea had not trained due to illness but after the match Sir Alex Ferguson reported he had also picked up an injury.
United dominated possession throughout the game, and where as it may not have been a vintage performance, it was very controlled and everyone impressed. As dominant as United were, chances were not always forthcoming, Scholes and Carrick coming closet before the deadlock was broken, both having fine efforts deflected wide. It was fitting though that they were the players who had chances, as once again it was their pairing in centre midfield which allowed so much possession. Their ease of passing is a joy to behold, rarely giving the ball away and both in the 100 completed passes club. United dictated play completely through these two meastro’s. Previous to those efforts it was Carrick who found himself with the chance of the game up to that point. Beautiful link up play between Park, Berbatov and Carrick left the latter through on goal. However, at an acute angle Carrick looked to be caught in two minds as whether to square the ball or go for goal. The move ended with a tame shot wide of the far post, but the move showed United’s quality and that the usually very tight Stoke back line could be unlocked.
United’s dominance finally paid off in the 38th minute when the first penalty was awarded. With fantastic vision on the edge of the box, and a the most calculated of touches, Scholes Played in Park Ji-Sung who looked to bare down on goal. He never got the chance however, as Jermaine Pennant rashly brought him down leaving the referee with little choice but to award the penalty. Hernandez took the responsibility and stepped up to fire hard and low into the side netting, sending Sorensen the wrong away, putting United one up. His first goal since November.
With half time approaching and Stoke only mustering a couple of chances, speculative shots early on in the game from Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walter which both flew wide of Amos’s goal, United once again felt they had a good shout for another penalty. Hernandez looked to cross but the ball struck Ryan Shawcross on the arm. Shawcross had his arm by his side though and made no movement towards the ball, and in fairness it would have been a harsh decision.
With United deservedly a goal up at the break and once again in total control of the game one may have expected them sit a little at the start of the second half, as they have done on a few occasions this season. Thankfully that was not the case and eight minutes into the second half United were awarded a second penalty. This time it was Antonio Valencia, who was again devastatingly good, who was brought down. Robert Huth this time having a couple of attempts at pulling Valencia back as he stormed into the Stoke box. Having already converted the earlier penalty, Hernandez stepped aside and Berbatov this time stepped up. This time Sorensen guessed right but the power and accuracy Berbatov took the penalty with give him little chance.
Now 2-0 down Stoke looked to inject a little more adventure into their game. For 10 minutes United were happy to sit back and let Stoke come on to them a little. This short period of attacking football from Stoke didn’t ever unduly concern United, with just a couple of distance efforts and balls into the box which Ferdinand and Evens dealt with well. Once Stoke did manage to get headed effort on goal (Cameron Jerome) Amos dealt with it comfortably. Amos couldn’t have asked for a better way to make your Premier League debut. Though he had very little to do he looked assured and always let his defence know what he was doing, making his mind up early when needing to make decisions.
With twenty minutes remaining United decided that they would not allow Stoke to build up any more momentum and took control again. From then in the game was once again played in Stokes half. Unbelievably a third penalty could have been awarded to United when Patrice Evra was blatantly hacked down in the box after a commanding run. This time however the referee looked to have got the decision wrong as he waved play on.
Although there were no more goals United continued to create chances. The introduction of Paul Pogba was also very welcome, he himself unlucky not to get on the score sheet as well as claim an assist. His shot from just inside the box was fired wide and on more than one occasion played in balls which on another day would have lead to a goal. It wasn’t all just pretty play from Pogba, he also worked hard to win the ball back when Stoke did manage some possession. A cameo appearance it may have been, but this was is best performance in a Manchester United 1st team, looking assured and confident. It surely helps him having the experience of Paul Scholes etc around him to let him play his natural game. With news earlier in the day that Ravel Morrison was to complete a move to West Ham United, Pogba’s involvement in tonights game can be classed a good man management, but it can also be seen that he is nearing ever more to that regular place in the match day squad.
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