Manchester United got the title bid back on track with a convincing 2-0 win at Stoke City that stretches the lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League to 15 points.
After the derby defeat to Manchester City, a trip to a blustery Britannia Stadium against a team battling to avoid the drop was clearly a potential banana-skin but the Reds’ class showed in testing conditions with Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie, from the penalty spot, grabbing the goals.
Sir Alex Ferguson selected Wayne Rooney in midfield with Javier Hernandez handed a chance to continue his fine scoring record against the Potters while Phil Jones and Shinji Kagawa also started. Rooney looked at home and the visitors made the perfect start following a fourth-minute corner.
Van Persie’s cross led to right-back Phil Jones trying to hook the ball goalwards but a scramble ensued and Carrick intelligently jabbed into the corner of the net with the outside of his foot. It was a first league goal for the majestic midfielder this term and the 100th for United in all competitions in 2012/2013.
Another van Persie corner saw Patrice Evra lift an attempt over the top while Rooney forced a decent stop out of Asmir Begovic after unleashing a piledriver from long range. Stoke’s response to falling behind was muted until Robert Huth headed wide from a Charlie Adam cross.
Nevertheless, United dictated matters for the majority of the first half and looked pretty comfortable. Van Persie tried to end his goal drought and lobbed a cheeky effort well wide from 40 yards out after robbing Adam before firing in a snap-shot that was fumbled behind for a corner by Begovic.
Sir Alex was fuming when ex-Red Ryan Shawcross escaped punishment for blatantly wrestling Hernandez to the ground as the home side’s strong-arm tactics sometimes crossed the line. Rooney had a chance to score seconds later but his free-kick flew inches wide of Begovic’s right-hand post.
Stoke managed to mount some pressure in first-half injury time but a similar pattern emerged after the interval with United in control, without really ramming home the advantage. Superb passes by Rooney and Hernandez carved out an opportunity for van Persie but the Dutchman lashed into the side-netting from a difficult angle.
As the Potters became more comfortable in defence, they tried getting the ball forward quickly and started to muster attempts of their own. Jon Walters hooked over the bar and Adam worked David De Gea with a couple of wind-assisted shots. Kenwyne Jones then blazed off target but the warning signs were soon heeded by the Reds.
Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia worked the ball cleverly down the right and Rooney bided his time before releasing van Persie. Andy Wilkinson made a reckless tackle as van Persie dummied back and, ultimately, floored United’s leading goalscorer inside the area to prompt referee Jon Moss to point to the spot. Calmly ignoring the fact that the wind initially blew the ball from the spot, van Persie stepped up to place his penalty wide of Begovic before sprinting off to celebrate with Sir Alex, Rene Meulensteen and Alexander Büttner on the sidelines.
The second goal led to unrest among sections of the home support but City’s response on the pitch was more impressive with De Gea forced to smother a shot by Ryan Shotton following a slip by Evra, which could have proved costly. Kenwyne Jones then tumbled over a grounded Nemanja Vidic inside the area but, despite the appeals, a spot-kick would have been ridiculously harsh.
The introduction of Danny Welbeck, for Hernandez, and Michael Owen gave the away fans the chance to go through some of the song-book as the clock ticked down on a 12th away win of the league campaign. Stoke’s performance may have highlighted a lack of confidence but Adam, voted his team’s man of the match on the tannoy to ironic cheers from the visiting supporters, again worked De Gea with a free-kick that drifted towards the far post.
Shotton’s embarrassing miskick perhaps summed up the hosts’ afternoon but United now only need seven points from six games to clinch a record 20th title – starting with Wednesday’s visit to West Ham.
7 points away!
Glory Glory ManUnited!
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