Let’s be frank: this is a game United might easily have lost. That they didn’t was partly due to a spirited performance that is making us difficult to beat when the chips are down these days, though a couple of marginal incidents in the second half – one a header against a post and another a close penalty call – also had something to do with it. That said, the fact that we didn’t need De Gea to rescue us says something about the small number of genuine chances Stoke created, even though the Reds defence looked far from secure at times.
United got off to the worst possible start. Stoke are of course notoriously dangerous on corners but the way a goal was conceded from the one they won in the second minute was unforgivable. A deep ball the head of Crouch, when he nodded it towards goal, Shawcross was allowed the time and space to score a rare goal with his foot. Although the Reds dominated possession for much of twenty minutes that followed, a well-organised home defence and central midfield soaked up the pressure effectively and they almost doubled their lead when ex-Red Diouf capitalised on an Evans mistake to find himself through on goal. Fortunately, his finishing was of a quality so often seen when he used to turn out for United’s reserves and the shot drifted harmlessly wide.
Fortunately, Stoke were defending corners as poorly as United and, when the Reds managed to put a half-decent one in, it brought a goal. Carrick flicked the ball on at the near post and the ball fell to Falcao who found space within the disorganised home rearguard to prod the ball into the net. If we expected that to be a turning point, we were mistaken. Stoke continued to carry a threat after the break and Jones was forced into a last-ditch headed clearance to prevent the ball from falling to Diouf. Soon after Stoke players were surrounding referee Oliver to protest against a handball not given against Smalling in the area, though presumably it was the close proximity of the defender that gave the decision in his favour. Van Persie then shot narrowly wide for United before Crouch went even closer for Stoke, hitting the woodwork before Cameron failed to capitalise on the rebound.
Young limped off for United to the kind of cheers which have become such a fixture of trips to the Britannia down the years and inevitably this did nothing to improve what had already become a thoroughly disjointed Reds performance. Januzaj had by now appeared on the left and, although he carried a threat going forward, he remains far from a convincing wing-back and Rooney was constantly pulled out of position in order to cover the position.
United’s heads no longer go down when going behind in games like this these days and, with so many talented attacking players on the pitch, there was always the hope we might snatch something as the game limped towards the close. In truth, though, this was far more of a home than an expectation and, as we go into the second half of the season, there will I’m sure be recognition from Van Gaal that our away form remains not good enough. Ten games unbeaten is a welcome statistic by anyone’s reckoning, but could do better would be a more accurate judgement of this United’s side going into 2015.