Stoke City 2 Manchester United 1
Certain Liverpool fans like to amuse themselves at the moment by claiming that the current United season is payback for the expiry of Ferguson’s two decade pact with the devil. While such comments inevitably tell us more about the somewhat restricted mental capacity of those fans (at least some of whom actually appear to take them seriously), it would explain a lot about this defeat at Stoke. While United fans will rightly point to a highly disappointing inability to see off the relegation fodder Stoke undoubtedly are, two defensive injuries in the first half, a deflected goal, a failure of the ref to show a clear red to a Stoke player and a long period at the end of the game in which United failed to convert the many opportunities they created might lead some of us to conclude there’s some credence to the observation. That a former Liverpool player should also be responsible for both goals added further salt to an already very painful wound.
United had the best of the play throughout, although struggled to create chances when playing with a heavy wind to their backs in the first half. The best was a fine cross from Evra that was met by Rooney, whose shot went just wide. Whatever limited chances Stoke produced were coming from the right, where Walters, who would have a crucial part to play in the game in several respects, managed to get in a series of crosses, though the conditions rendered such an approach futile and his efforts came to nothing. United had a chance to score on 28 minutes when Van Persie’s header was glanced out of play by the head of Whelan and, although such chances were few and far between, it was very much against the run of play when Stoke took the lead, Charlie Adam trying his luck with a free kick from forty yards. It ought to have been harmless but the kick struck Carrick’s knee and looped into the goal with De Gea stranded.
In one sense it was an unlucky break, especially as the free kick was awarded for a foul from Smalling that appeared to involve very little contact, but equally a player of Carrick’s experience ought not to have placed himself in such a position. He soon found himself called out of the midfield, after Phil Jones suffered a nasty injury in a clash of heads with Walters and was carried off. With Rafael already on for Evans, it meant Carrick taking up a place in central defence with Rooney moving back into midfield.
United responded early in the second and it’s to be hoped it will be a taste of what’s to come, Mata’s sublime pass putting in Van Persie who finished with style. Stoke came straight back, however, through another effort from range from Charlie Adam, a piledriver into the top corner that this time needed no deflection to give De Gea no chance.
United ought to have had the advantage of an extra man when a two-footed challenge from John Walters caught Chris Smalling in the United box. Walters came off worse, and had to leave the field through the injury incurred, but there was no question that the laws of the game demanded a straight red. United increased the pressure as the game went on and, although Stoke occasionally threatened on the break, largely set up camp outside the home penalty area. Mata was brought into a central area and played a series of exquisite passes into the box, all of which United’s forwards failed to make use of . The best effort came from Rooney, whose excellent free kick was pushed onto the bar from Begovic. From the rebound, Tom Cleverley appeared onto to need to prod the ball goalwards, but he blasted his shot high over the bar.
In the context of another season, this might have been written off as one of those things that an happen at the Britannia stadium. In this one, it will remove a lot of the optimism that’s build up among supporters on the back of the Mata signing. With Spurs dropping points, a win here would have allowed the Reds to take a much-needed step closer to those European places. As it is, we once again lose ground and, although there have certainly been worse United performances this season, that’s of little comfort given the importance of getting the points at this stage of the season.