United’s deadly array of attacking talent combined to devastating effect as the Reds overcame Stoke City in another enthralling, goal-laden encounter at Old Trafford.
Once again, a comeback was required as Wayne Rooney’s early own-goal put the Potters ahead, only for the scoreline to be flipped by the interval as Rooney nodded the Reds level and Robin van Persie steered home a clinical finish.
Danny Welbeck’s diving header put United in a position of comfort and, although Michael Kightly’s solo effort hauled Stoke back into contention, Rooney quickly struck again to ensure the victory for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
The United manager could reflect on another pulsating home game in which his side showed occasional frailties – particularly in the first period – but also demonstrated the mouth-watering potential afforded by their 4-2-3-1 formation.
Sir Alex had the rare luxury of picking from almost a full squad, despite losing a host of his players to international duty in the preceding fortnight. That allowed the manager to select his team based largely on freshness, with Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley missing from the squad entirely after their exertions with Japan and England respectively.
Paul Scholes returned in central midfield alongside Michael Carrick, while Antonio Valencia started on the right flank in the only changes from the side which started the Reds’ previous Premier League outing; an eye-catching victory at Newcastle.
The Reds’ storming start had laid the foundations for three points at St James’ Park, and it took under 30 seconds for the hosts to register the first shot of the game against the Potters as Scholes arrowed a 25-yard volley comfortably off-target.
Barely another couple of minutes had passed before United pierced the visitors’ well-drilled backline, as van Persie latched onto Scholes’ measured chip, only for a linesman’s flag to halt play.
Stoke’s response was largely channelled through summer acquisition Charlie Adam, who swung in a dangerous cross which De Gea confidently punched to safety, before lashing an ambitious right-footed volley well over.
Sure enough, the Scot was a pivotal figure in the visitors taking a shock lead in the 11th minute. After Michael Kightly had been fouled by Scholes, Adam curled in a fine, right-wing free-kick which Rooney was helpless to avoid as he jostled with Ryan Shawcross, and the ball struck the United forward and bounced past De Gea.
The euphoric away support were still celebrating when Adam almost doubled Stoke’s lead, firing in an audacious effort from the left touchline which De Gea alertly scrambled to safety. Though falling behind was an established trend in the early stages of 2012/13, the goal sucked much of the impetus away from United, with Stoke clearly galvanised.
And, while the visitors’ famed direct approach was often on show, there was substantial guile to complement the graft. Mere moments after De Gea had fielded Peter Crouch’s close-range header, a superb, intricate passing move culminated in the Spaniard parrying away Jonathan Walters’ left-footed effort.
Those efforts sandwiched United’s clearest opening of the game, as Welbeck and van Persie executed a neat one-two and the England international dragged his finish wide of Asmir Begovic’s goal.
The Stoke stopper was beaten, however, shortly before the half-hour mark as Rooney atoned for his earlier opener. Van Persie, having pulled wide left in the Reds’ revolving attack, received the ball from Rooney, then swung a magnificent cross into the six yard box, where Rooney had superbly manoeuvred between Shawcross and Huth to nod home.
For the remainder of the first half, the tone had been set, with the Reds’ forward quartet central to most of what transpired. Van Persie’s flighted ball was superbly controlled by Rooney and set for Welbeck, who fired over under heavy pressure from Shawcross. A surging run from Scholes and one-two with van Persie was snuffed out by Huth, before Welbeck’s stunning 25-yard curler clipped Begovic’s bar.
Parity was creaking, and duly gave in a minute before the interval in a move which laid bare the glaring positives of the Reds’ new-look formation and penchant for passing the ball from back to front.
De Gea, Evans and Carrick were central figures as the ball was ferried – under heavy Stoke pressure – from the United area to the right flank, where Valencia deliberated, shimmied and then drilled in a cross which van Persie contorted to stab home.
Even in the few moments that remained in the first period, Stoke served notice that their threat remained, as Rafael was required to make a heroic clearance with Steven N’Zonzi lurking.
The surest way to see off the visitors was by continuing to attack, and United began the second period in perfect fashion. Again, members of the forward four combined, as Rooney swung in a sublime cross which Welbeck dived to head beyond Begovic.
The Serbian came to his side’s rescue two minutes later, blocking Jonny Evans’ header with his own face at point blank range, and United continued to make openings. Geoff Cameron covered superbly to rob Welbeck after van Persie’s fine pass, before Rafael’s cross was only fractionally ahead of Welbeck’s sliding attempts to turn it home.
Stoke seemed spent, yet were handed an unexpected route back into the game when Kightly charged through the centre of the United defence, capitalised on a ricochet off Ferdinand’s heel and finished via the inside of De Gea’s post.
Any nerves – which could be forgiven, such was the open nature of the game – were quickly settled when the Reds’ two-goal lead was restored. A van Persie corner nicked Shawcross and hit Welbeck, falling perfectly for Rooney to squeeze a left-footed finish past Begovic from close range.
Inevitably, a breathless game lulled in the dying stages. There were few efforts on goal from either side, though Michael Owen – who received a warm ovation on his return to Old Trafford – clipped a shot just over De Gea’s bar as time ticked away.
Stoke’s attempts to find a route back into the game were snuffed out well by a United backline which warmed to the taxing task of dealing with Crouch and his cohorts, making for a comparatively serene final quarter-hour. Yet in a week when the cost of following football was dissected for supporters to digest, those inside Old Trafford could reflect on another week of value for money.