STOKE CITY’S wait for a first Premier League victory at Old Trafford has been prolonged for at least another twelve months after Manchester United inflicted a third successive defeat upon the Potters on Tuesday evening.
Juan Mata’s fortuitous second-half free-kick was enough to secure the Red Devils all three points after Steven Nzonzi’s stunning 20-yard effort had levelled matters for his side following Marouane Fellaini’s early header.
The outcome had for long periods looked to have been warranted given the fact that Louis Van Gaal’s side had created the better openings throughout the clash, although Mark Hughes will feel disappointed with the manner of United’s two efforts.
Deep into stoppage time however, the Potters piled the pressure upon the hosts and but for the brilliance of David De Gea, who denied both Marko Arnautovic and Mame Diouf with world class saves, as well as Ashley Young’s goal-line block, the outcome could have been hugely different.
Prior to kick-off Hughes, who returned back to his former stomping ground, made three changes to his starting line-up from the one that succumbed to an undeserved defeat at Anfield three days earlier.
The Welshman lost the services of midfielders Glenn Whelan and Steve Sidwell during that encounter, and to add to his injury problems, Jonathan Walters was ruled out before kick-off after failing a late fitness test.
In came Phil Bardsley, at right back, with Geoff Cameron pushing further up the field in midfield, whilst Oussama Assaidi and Stephen Ireland were both recalled into the starting eleven having had limited game time so far this season.
Understandably, it took the visitors a little while to find their feet in the game against a side who came into the clash on the back of three successive wins.
United started the brighter of the two teams, with Fellaini in-particular proving to be a real nuisance in the Potters half.
The Belgian’s sheer size and power enabled him to dictate the early exchanges, and with the pace of young James Wilson on one side and the intelligence of Juan Mata on the opposite flank it was inevitable that the City backline were going to have to retain their concentration for long periods.
Marshalled by the consistently impressive Ryan Shawcross, Hughes’ side managed to have an answer for all of the questions being posed to them by Van Gaal’s troops.
In fact, it was a misplaced Asmir Begovic pass that gifted the hosts the opening opportunity of the evening, but thankfully for the Bosnian, Wilson was unable to hit the target after Robin Van Persie had unselfishly squared the ball into his path.
At the other end Stoke’s first real surge forward very nearly culminated in Bojan tapping the ball into the net from close range after attacking Erik Pieters’ superb ball across the 6-yard box. Chris Smalling came to his side’s rescue by thwarting the lively Spaniard.
The Potters were neat and tidy on the ball, but in truth rarely looked likely to break down a stubborn and much-improved Manchester United backline.
In contrast, the Red Devils did boast that bit of class on the ball to cause the Potters problems. Van Persie was a constant menace in and around the penalty box, whilst Ashley Young was always a threat with his pace down the left.
As it was, it was a passage of play down that side of the field that resulted in the deadlock being broken as Fellaini leaped highest and met Ander Herrera’s superb cross with real aplomb; leaving Begovic helpless.
It was always going to be a challenge for the Potters to claim something from Old Trafford, but with that goal and the growing confidence amongst Van Gaal’s side, the task became even more difficult.
United remained dogged and determined at the back, breaking up promising passages of Stoke play, but there was absolutely nothing they could do to deny Nzonzi, who launched an absolute thunderbolt into the bottom corner of the net after Bojan’s brilliance inside the box had freed the former Blackburn man.
The visitors had barely settled by the time Fellaini thought he had restored United’s advantage from 4-yards, but Begovic produced a sublime save down to his left to firstly block the Belgian’s effort and then smother the ball as the midfielder looked to pounce on the free ball.
Some early pressure from the hosts in the second half was a sign of things to come as they looked to turn the screw and build some momentum on top of the recent upturn in fortunes the side have enjoyed.
Fifteen minutes in and Stoke fell behind for the second time! Initially it had looked like Marco Rojo had glanced Mata’s in-swinging set-piece into the far corner from an offside position, although replays suggested that the defender didn’t make any contact with the ball.
The lead should have been doubled when both Van Persie and Wilson found themselves well placed inside the penalty area, but neither were able to hit the back of the net when it had appeared certain that at least one of them would have done.
Hughes introduced Crouch and Arnautovic at the expense of Assaidi and Ireland in a bit to add some additional creativity to his side, and it almost paid dividends right at the death.
Four minutes of stoppage time was announced at the end of a relatively uneventful second 45 minutes. Cue quite incredible and nerve-wracking late drama!
Arnautovic, who looked back to his classy old self following his introduction from the bench, was needlessly hacked down on the right flank by Smalling. Bojan stepped up and whipped across a superb delivery, Diouf flung himself at the ball and De Gea responded with a point blank save to thwart the former United youngster.
Stoke continued in the ascendency and thought they had grabbed a point with virtually the last kicks of the game, when firstly Arnautovic forced De Gea into a quite superb save down to his left, before the luckless Diouf saw his goalbound effort blocked on the line by Young.