Manchester United 2 – 1 Stoke
Fellaini 20, N’Zonzi 38, Rojo 58
Squeaky bum-time, it seems, is still possible from the director’s box. Watching from the stands Sir Alex Ferguson witnessed a remarkable goal-line clearance from Ashley Young that enabled an often wasteful United to hang on for their fourth victory in a row, and retain the fourth Champions League spot.
A powerful first half header from Maroune Fellaini had given United the lead inside twenty minutes, before Steven N’Zonzi had equalised with a fine strike past David De Gea a few minutes before half-time. Midway through the second half Juan Mata’s deep in-swinging free kick took the faintest of touches from the head of Marcos Rojo – who was very narrowly offside – and United had a lead which they probably deserved on the balance of play.
But it didn’t come easy. With United in panic mode deep into stoppage time, Mame Biram Diouf saw his point-blank effort blocked on the line and cleared by the wing back. At the final whistle just seconds afterwards, the former United forward’s face was a picture of disbelief. Mark Hughes looked apoplectic.
This was a far less convincing performance from United than was seen against Hull. Throughout both halves they were profligate, but their inability to the kill the game in the final 20 minutes will be the element that rankles Louis van Gaal the most after enjoying so much possession. Hughes, on the other hand, will be furious that so much of United’s dominance was down to countless giveaways by Stoke.
Even as the clock ticked to 75 minutes there was a sense that United’s lead was fragile. You could hear the insistence from the home crowd that their night be made a little more relaxing – on several occasions United could have killed the game but for poor decisions with the final ball.
United had spent much of the early second failing to make the most of several incursions behind Stoke’s back line, but the visitors’ wastefulness with poor passes and needless free kicks was to cost them. It was a such a free kick that handed United their second, as Juan Mata’s inswinger to the back post appeared to take the faintest of touches from Marcos Rojo before ending up in the net.
The floodgates were in danger of being seriously breached following Rojo’s goal, as United rode a wave of confidence and energy. Phil Bardsley struggled to deal with the pace with which United fired the ball out wide, and with Ashley Young’s movement. James Wilson had the opportunity to give the home side some breathing space after drifting pass three opposition players but the youngster put the ball past Begovic’s near post when a square pass to Robin van Persie was the better option. The Dutchman was not happy.
The first half saw Stoke’s habit of needlessly giving the ball away nearly cost them on several occasions, but it was a moment of great quality that gave United the lead. A neat move between Juan Mata and Ander Herrera down the left flank ended with the latter floating an inch-perfect cross onto the head of the onrushing Fellaini, whose header was powered past Asmir Begovic.
It was an odd opening period, characterised by flashes of brilliance and nerves in equal measure from from both sides. With the exception of the first goal Stoke were disciplined and structured in their own half and United found none of the generosity provided to them by Hull the previous week. A brain-freeze from Begovic, who gave the ball straight to van Persie, proved harmless when the Dutchman’s pass to Ander Herrera was skied over the bar. It was a let off.
Fellaini, who has suddenly, quietly began to establish himself as a presence in United’s engine room, looked as if he was relishing the occasion was central in both goals and really every incident of the first half. It was a shame therefore when he went down clutching his neck after Bojan appeared to only make contact with his thigh and from there, United slipped. As several red shirts crowded the ball, it broke to Nzonzi who calmly sidefooted it past de gea’s left side from twenty yards. Stoke, though, will curse their carelessness, as well as the quick thinking of Ashley Young.