MANCHESTER UNITED 3, STOKE CITY 2
Goals by Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez secured victory for a United side who were second best for the large majority of the game at Old Trafford against a committed Stoke side who looked like deserved winners with 12 minutes to go. With nothing to lose, United manager David Moyes had to throw the kitchen sink at Stoke and, in the finest United tradition, the crowd were rewarded for their patience with a stunning win.
Stoke manager Mark Hughes was left fuming at the fact that the winning goal was scored by substitute Hernandez who in his mind should have been sent off for a reckless tackle on Robert Huth in the second half.
“Players have been sent off for lesser offences than that.” said Hughes who also reflected that United’s slipping ‘aura of invincibility’ informed their game plan and almost paid off for them.
“We were encouraged by what other teams had done here and thought we had the capability to do a similar performance if we got at them.” explained Hughes.
Moyes found his hand forced by conceding the early goals but enjoyed the eventual outcome. He said:
“I thought in the end we had to go for it. We did a lot of good things but also a lot of poor things which put us in the situation we were in.
“We got ourselves back in the game just before half time only to concede from a really poor free kick.
“I told to the lads we were more than capable of doing it and we needed all the substitutes to do it.
The Scot was concerned with conceding goals but was pleased with the reaction from both the players and the fans:
“I thought we were very worthy of getting a goal back. We kept knocking at the door and finding ways through.
“We needed our keeper to make an outstanding save in the second half.
“At times our play was good but we couldn’t find the way through.
“I thought the supporters were terrific with 15 minutes to go – they drove the team on and were a part of the result – they want to see the team win more convincingly.”
Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow might have hung heavily over this game for the first 78 minutes but there was a classic United turn-around in the space of two late second half minutes to swing the result back from the brink of disaster and into yet another famous United comeback just as they seemed be falling to another ignominious result during an inauspicious season.
The result might only have papered over the cracks, however, as Stoke were hit the loss of Marko Arnautovic who succumbed to illness early in the second half. Without his attacking influence, Stoke tried to hold on to their lead – a risky tactic at Old Trafford as Moyes found to his cost last week.
Although Hughes’ men outfought a sluggish United side for well over an hour they couldn’t keep up their highly energetic game plan and the home side took their chances once they finally started to arrive late in the game.
Peter Crouch claimed a scruffy opening goal which went in off his leg after Johnny Evans had attempted to clear Erik Pieters’ left wing cross only to hit the Stoke target man with the loose ball which deflected in past David De Gea. Crouch, who hadn’t started a game for Stoke since August 24, gratefully claimed the goal.
A goal to the good, it was clear that Stoke had come to play and they pressed United and forced them into errors. Van Persie looked out of sorts, Kagawa was outmuscled by a still formidable Stoke defence and Rooney was often isolated in wide positions while Nani was exceptionally wasteful with the chances that came his way throughout the first half.
Stoke had at least two golden opportunities to extend their lead in the first half which would eventually come back to haunt them.
Nzonzi’s left wing cross was knocked down by Crouch and Jonathan Walters had two chances to score but couldn’t beat David De Gea in the 26th minute while the Austrian attacker could have scored himself in the 32nd minute after Stephen Ireland’s decoy run created space for a cross from Walters but he couldn’t beat De Gea.
Finally, Pieters left Nani in his wake after winning the ball off him close to the end of the first half but Johnny Evans made the clearance after the cross went in.
United had already wasted several chances before they equalised, with Nani the main culprit seeing many chances slashed wide without testing Asmir Begovic. The Portugese winger chose to cross in the 43d minute and Rooney’s header was parried out by the superb Bosnian ‘keeper but Van Persie was on hand to rifle United’s equaliser.
The sense of relief only last a few seconds, though, as Stoke restored their lead almost immediately after Phil Jones floored Arnautovic in front of the area and the Austrian dusted himself off and curled a superb free kick in off the fingertips of De Gea to restore the Stoke lead a minute before half time.
Tempers flared at half time as Van Persie and Ryan Shawcross tangled on the way back to the tunnel.
Stoke were forced onto the back foot after the early loss of Arnautovic early in the second period. With the loss of an attacking lynchpin Stoke began to run out of ideas but United didn’t really test them for long stretches until Moyes began to make the kind of attacking substitutions that would have made previous United managers proud – especially for one sitting in the Directors’ box.
Javier Hernandez came on during the second half, the Mexican arrived to cheers and his man he replaced, Nani, went off to jeers, and began to stretch the Stoke defence but was lucky not be to punished more heavily than with a booking for a reckless tackle on Robert Huth.
With time running out and Stoke getting tired United finally struck back in the 78th minute.
Rooney evaded former Manchester City midfielder Stephen Ireland and levelled the scores with 12 minutes to go with a cushioned header from Van Persie’s corner that looped in at the back post.
Two minutes later Old Trafford erupted into cheers as United completed the comeback with the winner from Hernandez who found himself in space and converted Patrice Evra’s cross with a firm back post header. It was a key moment that even had Sir Alex Ferguson out of his seat in the Director’s box.
Stoke didn’t have the energy left to reply although Shawcross did have the ball into back of the net in the 90th minute but it was ruled out immediately for an earlier foul on De Gea.
The relief was palpable at the final whistle. The cracks might still be there but this week the fans didn’t care.