STOKE CITY failed to prevent Manchester United from getting back on course for their thirteenth Barclays Premier League title . . . as they slipped to their sixth defeat in seven matches in the live televised match at the Britannia Stadium.
The Potters found themselves with an uphill task after falling behind to a fourth minute strike from England midfielder Michael Carrick and United’s leading Robin van Persie wrapped up the points with a clinically-taken penalty in the 66th minute.
It completed a bleak day for the Potters, who saw Sunderland pull off an unexpected victory over Newcastle United in the Tyne and Wear derby, giving City even more cause for concern in the battle to avoid relegation from the Premier League.
For United, it was a big step towards wrapping up the title as they restored a 15-point gap over closest rivals Manchester City.
Pulis had made three changes to the side beaten by Aston Villa eight days earlier with Wilkinson, Adam and the fit-again Whelan all brought into the starting line-up.
It meant that Wilson and Etherington had failed late fitness tests, so Wilkinson was earmarked to fill the vacant spot at left back with Cameron continuing on the right.
United, who had Rooney lining up in the centre of midfield, had to soak up some early, but in their first venture they took a fourth minute lead from a corner.
Van Persie swung the kick in from the right hand side and when City failed to deal with the initial threat, although Jones’ attempt to hook the ball goalbound was blocked, it broke Carrick to stab a close range shot beyond the reach of the diving Begovic.
The first scent of an opening for the Potters came when Jones neatly chested down Shawcross’ long ball forward for Walters to try a shot from just outside the box, but he failed to get either the power or direction on it to trouble De Gea as it flew harmlessly wide.
There was another worrying moment for City as United rounded off a period of possession with Rooney finding the space in the middle of the park to unleash a venomous drive that had Begovic pushing it out as he moved smartly to his right.
A minute’s applause in the 14th minute for a young supporter who had passed away seemed to lift the atmosphere in the stadium and gave the Potters the encouragement to push forward and ask some questions of United’s back four.
When Vidic’s foul on Adam earned them a free kick, Whelan’s delivery into the box was met firmly by the head of Huth but if flashed past the upright.
City breathed a huge sigh of relief when van Persie instinctively tried a lob from some 40 yards out after Adam got caught in possession, but although Begovic was stranded well off his line, it got caught in the strong wind and drifted wide.
United turned defence into attack swiftly when Huth was caught in possession which led to van Persie trying to beat Begovic at his near post with a shot on the turn, but although the Bosnian had it covered, he allowed it to bobble behind for a corner.
After the Potters showed plenty of endeavour in trying to fashion an opening, United hit them on the counter attack again as Kawaga burst forward, only for Adam to eventually halt him in his tracks to give them a free kick in a menacing position.
With van Persie and Rooney over the ball, the threat was a considerable one and it was eventually the England man who struck it, but it curled wide of Begovic’s right hand post with the ‘keeper scurrying across his line to try and cover it.
Having got to half-time only a goal down, City were fortunate not to fall further behind shortly after the break when Rooney and Hernandez linked up well, the Mexican threading a perfectly weighted pass through to van Persie just inside the box.
Although it was a tight angle, the Dutchman tried to lift it into the roof of the net at the near post but only hit the sidenetting.
The Potters responded by carving out an opportunity of their own as Shotton headed back Whelan’s deep cross at the far post, but Walters hooked his close range over the bar, appealing that it had deflected off a United defender.
For the first time in the match, De Gea was called upon to make a couple of saves, the first of them to keep out a long range effort from Adam and again moments later when the Scottish international tried his luck from inside his own half.
City’s hopes of mounting a fightback were deflated, however, in the 66th minute when United were awarded a contentious penalty.
Rooney had carried the ball deep into their territory on a counter attack before slipping a pass to van Persie who went down as he turned inside Wilkinson, although television replays suggested that it was harsh on the Potters full-back.
After a delay in taking the spot kick, van Persie kept his nerve in drilling the ball low to Begovic’s left much to his delight as he headed down the touchline to celebrate the goal with his manager and others on the United bench.
Pulis responded by making two substitutions, the first of them when Jerome was brought on in place of Cameron before a rare appearance from Owen who was introduced in place of Walters.
As the game moved into the final ten minutes, United threatened to stretch their lead when Jones was released on the overlap, but his low cross was turned behind for a corner by Huth.
When Adam hoisted a free kick into the box in the direction of Jones and Shawcross, it carried all the way through to De Gea who eventually had to move smartly to his right to push it behind for a corner, which was dealt with by the United defence.
Although Crouch was thrown on for the closing stages, there was little that City could muster to threaten United’s two-goal cushion.