A toepoke from Michael Carrick and a penalty from Robin Van Persie don’t necessarily suggest the most decisive of wins but, in truth, this was about as straightforward an away win as the Reds have recorded all season. Stoke’s football remains as ugly as ever, but they no longer have the competitive streak that raises their team to more than the sum of its parts and, on this evidence, they look real relegation candidates.
I suspect few among our supporters will lament such a fate. Stoke’s fans frequently seem to imagine themselves as big enough to be genuine rivals to United, although the fact they dish out similar levels of hatred when Arsenal visit suggest that, like their team’s style, they’re more enemies of good football than anything else. They predictably dusted off their loud boos and aeroplane impersonations for our annual visit but, by the second half, their ire had been re-directed towards their own outplayed and hapless players, whose feeble effort was on a par with Julian Clary getting into the ring to spar with Mike Tyson.
Unlike hard-fought visits to the Brittania Stadium of the recent past, United barely had to break sweat. A well-organised, disciplined performance on the back of Carrick’s third minute goal was more than enough to bag the three points. Although some eyebrows were raised when Rooney started the game in midfield, this was a perfectly balanced team selection by Ferguson: the still out-of-form Valencia on the right and Kagawa, who still doesn’t look at home on the left did enough simply by being there as United’s central midfield ran a game against some of the most meek resistance they’ve faced all season. Kagawa’s tendency to drift inside and supplement that central thrust was accompanied by a fine overlapping performance from Evra in the space he created. Vidic and Ferdinand swallowed up everything that was thrown down the middle by Stoke, such as it was, and probably only the wind prevented De Gea, in a game that in the past he’d have been forgiven for having nightmares in the run up to, from getting the deckchair out.
Leaving aside the standard of the opposition, though, the game made a clear case for Rooney operating in central midfield more often. Arguably, it plays to his strengths more, allowing him to make powerful runs from deep and to spread around the kind of glorious passes that have always been a part of his game but which a forward role doesn’t lend itself to. Cleverley has done a fine job supplying the energy that gives Carrick the room from which to conduct his passing masterclasses for much of the season, but he still struggles to keep it going for the full ninety minutes. Rooney can do that with ease, and deploying him in that role allows Ferguson to find room for the undoubted attacking riches he has at his disposal. Here, we were able to field Chicharitio, Van Persie, Kagawa and Rooney in the same eleven without any worrying gaps appearing, which may give Fergie some interesting options to ponder for next season.
A second goal from Van Persie was enough to confirm what had been inevitable from the third minute. His slick move inside Wilkinson – a defender so limited he’d have struggled to earn a crust even back in the first division of the seventies – brought the trip that enabled him to do something United have rarely been able to this season: take a convincing penalty. By this point the most entertaining feature of the afternoon had become the faces and gestures of those irate Stoke fans as the Reds put to bed any post-derby concerns and took a decisive step in the direction of SAF’s thirteenth title. Here’s hoping we can grab another win at West Ham and that city drop points at Spurs, allowing us to celebrate winning the league at home to Villa a week tomorrow.