MAN UNITED 2, STOKE CITY 1
Manchester United maintained their new-found momentum as they made it four successive Barclays Premier League victories against Stoke City at Old Trafford.
It is now only one defeat in nine league games as United remain in the fourth and final Champions League place as their revival under Louis van Gaal continued.
United had to work hard for their victory, though, and there was a scare when Steven Nzonzi equalised the goal from Marouane Fellaini which gave the Reds the lead and they also had two massive let offs in stoppage time as Stoke so nearly snatched an unlikely point.
There was doubt as to whether Juan Mata or Marcos Rojo scored the Reds’ winner, but it didn’t really matter as the most important thing was that they collected three points with a badly depleted line up.
Manager Louis van Gaal praised the spirit of his side for “fighting to the end” but believed there is scope for improvement.
He said: “I am not happy with the performance. I was not pleased with the first half when we were not as aggressive as in the game against Hull City. We want to play the same style.
“We didn’t keep our positions and therefore didn’t create so many chances. In the second half we played better, kept our positions , were more aggressive and created chances.”
Van Gaal added that a failure by Fellaini and James Wilson to take chance and kill off the game almost came back to haunt them at the end when he admitted they were fortunate.
“We had a bit of luck at the end, but perhaps we earned it. You have to see the whole game. There was only one team on the pitch, and that was Manchester United.”
United were without captain Wayne Rooney, who tomorrow will have a scan on his injured knee, and Angel Di Maria who were both hurt in Saturday’s home league win against Hull City as their casualty list remains a worry for Dutchman van Gaal.
There was only a second league start for striker Wilson while Ander Herrera also won a recall with Michael Carrick surprisingly captaining the side ahead of Robin van Persie.
United ought to have taken a 16th minute lead when van Persie intercepted a poor clearance from keeper Asmir Begovic and cut the ball back to Herrera who blazed over when he ought to have found the net.
There was no mistake five minutes later when United took the lead when Herrera turned provider with a looping cross to the far post which Fellaini headed home from six yards. It was only his second goal for the Reds in his 30th appearance.
Stoke equalised six minutes before the break after a catalogue of mishaps. Fellaini claimed he was fouled by Oussama Assaidi and then Chris Smalling was caught before the ball ran to Nzonzi who fired home a terrific shot from outside the box low to the left of keeper David De Gea.
United came close to regaining the lead not long after when Smalling’s shot was deflected to Fellaini whose shot almost crept under the body of Begovic.
After a dire start to the second period, United regained the lead just short of the hour with doubt as to who scored the goal.
Many believed Mata’s free kick from the right touchline went straight in, but Argentinian defender Rojo claimed he got a touch glancing a header wide of keeper Begovic as he claimed the goal which would have been the first since his summer move from Sporting Lisbon.
It was an issue which will surely be determined by the dubious goals committee.
Wilson ought to have sealed victory with 20 minutes left when he broke from midfield bursting forward before shooting just wide from just inside the box.
And late on the lively Fellaini had a great chance to score a second goal of the night as his shot flashed just over the crossbar.
There was drama in stoppage when Stoke came within a whisker of equalising on two occasions.
De Gea pulled off a brilliant save to deny Mame Diouf and then also to thwart substitute Marko Arnautovic with an equally super stop. On the last chance the ball ran free to Diouf whose shot was cleared off the line by Ashley Young as United hung on to the three points by a thread.
And Stoke manager Mark Hughes was disappointed with United’s winning goal claiming it ought to have been ruled out for offside while he described the misses at the end as “unbelievable”.
Hughes also thought his side was unlucky to leave empty handed saying: “Overall we deserved something out of the game. We contributed to a good Premier League game and I am encouraged by what we have done against against two high-profile teams (Liverpool and United) and we have not got the reward for our efforts which is disappointing.
“I was pleased with our performance and we had a go. We were not under wave after wave of attacks as has happened in the past – United are not at that level at the present time.”