Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov both scored penalties as Manchester United erased Manchester City’s three-point lead in the title race with a fourth consecutive league win.
The two strikers, paired in attack for the first time since New Year’s Eve, shared the spot-kick duties either side of the interval as Stoke City’s resistance crucially faltered on two occasions.
Jermaine Pennant felled Ji-sung Park for Chicharito’s 38th-minute penalty and Jon Walters fouled Antonio Valencia for Berbatov’s big moment, eight minutes after the break.
Chances in open play were few and far between, but opportunities to impress were taken with both hands by two Barclays Premier League debutants – Ben Amos started in goal with Anders Lindegaard and David De Gea both injured, while Paul Pogba replaced Chicharito for a memorable last 18 minutes.
Meanwhile, Pogba’s former United Reserves team-mate Ravel Morrison was completing a permanent move to West Ham but the bigger distraction for the home fans was the news of Darron Gibson – another January departure from Old Trafford – scoring against City for Everton at Goodison Park.
The Reds began this game with four changes to the line-up that lost at Liverpool, with Amos, Rio Ferdinand, Berbatov and Hernandez coming in for De Gea, Rafael, Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck.
As the drafted-in players bedded down, Stoke made the brighter start. Jon Walters demonstrated the danger he can present with a driving run and shot that flashed inches wide of Amos’ right-hand post. Kenwyne Jones then volleyed comfortably the wrong side of the same upright after Ferdinand only managed to half-clear Jermaine Pennant’s cross. At the other end, Michael Carrick had a low drive blocked by Ryan Shawcross, the former United player at the heart of the Potters’ defence.
Amos’ first touch of note was a clean catch from Peter Crouch’s header following Marc Wilson’s deep cross, however referee Mike Jones found fault with the Stoke centre-forward gaining leverage on a Reds defender.
Scholes, scorer of the first goal in United’s previous home game, almost seized the same role in this contest when his turf-skimming missile was deflected narrowly off-target.
Evra, so much in the spotlight on Saturday, tried to grab some limelight when he broke into the area and went down for only half-hearted penalty appeals from the crowd, and then whipped the ball into the side-netting from United’s next attack. Stoke’s other flank came under flak from in-form Antonio Valencia but Thomas Sorensen dealt effectively with the Ecuadorian’s angled drive, diving through the forest of defenders’ legs to push the ball away.
Sorensen could only look on and pray however when Carrick fed Park and ran on to collect Berbatov’s ball into space behind the Stoke defence.
The midfielder fired across the keeper but, agonisingly, his effort ran past the far post and United’s best chance of the half so far went begging.
Thankfully a better chance came along moments later, created by Scholes with his back to goal, flicking the ball into the path of Park who was upended by Pennant in the box. It wasn’t the most clear-cut of calls for referee Mike Jones and he was surrounded by Stoke players in protest. But Chicharito paid no attention, kept his head and tucked the spot-kick into the bottom left-hand corner with Sorensen diving in the other direction. Pennant was doubly punished with a yellow card for his sin.
The Mexican made a strong shout for a second penalty shortly afterwards but this time referee Jones waved play on after the scorer’s cross struck Shawcross on the arm. Stoke broke forward and Scholes tripped Kenwyne Jones to pick up United’s first booking.
If Tony Pulis sent his Potters out with a new game plan for the second period, it was in tatters when Walters wrestled with Valencia and impeded the Ecuadorian so much that Jones had no option other than pointing to the spot for a second time.
Chicharito, the scourge of Stoke with four goals against them in two seasons, stepped aside this time and allowed Berbatov to bag his ninth strike of the campaign. Sorensen went the right way this time but the Bulgarian’s penalty went under him and into the bottom right-hand corner.
The pattern of the game remained the same throughout the second half, with United dominating possession and Stoke desperately trying to deny the Reds time and space. Aside from Amos saving well from Cameron Jerome’s header, the action was all in front of the Stretford End. One or two other penalty claims were unsuccessful, the strongest following Wilkinson’s challenge on Evra; the lively Pogba was denied a dream debut goal when the same defender blocked his shot and Berbatov slotted just wide in injury time from Valencia’s tireless supply line.
But ultimately two goals were enough for the champions who were composed and comfortable – and can feel ever more confident that the title can be retained this season now that City have again been pegged back on points.
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