STOKE CITY rounded off their festive schedule with a thoroughly deserved point against Manchester United in front of the live television cameras on New Years Day.
The Potters, who had previously claimed successive victories over Everton and West Bromwich Albion, will undoubtedly feel aggrieved not to have made it a trio of triumphs having edged a hugely entertaining encounter.
Former United youngster Ryan Shawcross gave the hosts a dream start with a clinically taken volley after just three minutes, before Mame Diouf created and then spurned a glorious opportunity to double the advantage.
That missed opportunity was punished midway through the first half when Radamel Falcao latched on to Michael Carrick’s flick and slammed the ball beyond the reach of Asmir Begovic to peg back Mark Hughes’ side.
The second half certainly belonged to Stoke however, with Peter Crouch rattling the woodwork from 10-yards, just moments after being denied what appeared to have been a stonewall penalty with Chris Smalling handing his goal-bound effort.
The performance and result will certainly have pleased Hughes far more than it will Louis van Gaal, although the Welshman will be left pondering what might have been had that little bit of lady luck shone on his side.
Prior to kick-off he was enforced into making one change from the team that beat West Bromwich Albion 2-0 four days earlier with maestro Bojan missing out after failing to overcome a hamstring injury he sustained against the Baggies.
His replacement came in the form of Jonathan Walters, who returned to the eleven after a sickness bug restricted him to a spot amongst the substitutes in the last Barclays Premier League outing.
United made changes of their own with van Gaal opting for the more experienced Smalling at the back at the expense of young defender Paddy McNair.
There were also spots in the starting line-up for the likes of Robin van Persie, Juan Mata, Falcao and England star Wayne Rooney as van Gaal named an incredibly attack-minded side as he looked to get the New Year off to a perfect start.
His hopes of leading his side to victory were significantly dashed less than two minutes in, one minute and 49 seconds to be precise, when Peter Crouch flicked Marko Arnautovic’s set-piece towards Shawcross, who instinctively volleyed the ball into the roof of the net.
It was the dream start for the Potters. Not so much for United, who were going to have to display all the credentials they have shown in recent months if they were to prolong their unbeaten league run to ten.
Stoke hassled, harried and pressed the visitors at every given opportunity. Smalling and Jonny Evans were just two of the more experienced players struggling to adapt to the tenacious and determined City eleven.
The drive in the Stoke side was evident in the 20th minute when Diouf chased a lost cause, forced Evans into a mistake, and found himself through on goal with just David de Gea to beat. Unfortunately for the Senegalese star, a lack of composure cost him dearly as he struck his left-foot strike wide of the target when he will undoubtedly have expected to have doubled the lead.
Almost inevitably that missed chance came back to haunt the home side, as Rooney’s in-swinging corner was glanced across the 6-yard box by Carrick and Falcao beat Marc Muniesa to the ball and struck gold for his side from close range.
That effort could have signalled a change in direction of the match that had been all Stoke’s, however, to the Potters’ credit they maintained their superb tempo and continued to look the more dangerous of the two teams despite United’s greater share of possession.
Austrian international Arnautovic was causing havoc amongst the United backline with his variety of set-piece deliveries, none of which they looked comfortable in dealing with.
Crouch went close to connecting with a powerful delivery that flashed across goal, whilst a more teasing corner culminated in Walters rising highest and planting a header straight at the unsuspecting Luke Shaw.
The half-time interval came at a good time for the visitors, and in many ways for Stoke too, who were able to regroup and reflect on what was a very impressive opening 45 minutes against the most in-form side in the league.
The start of the second period heralded a far more laboured approach from both sides, neither willing to take too many risks going forward, possibly down to the counter-attacking qualities of the opposition.
A United corner saw Phil Jones test Bosnian international Begovic with a header from 9-yards in what was the first real meaningful effort at goal in the second period, whilst at the other end Shawcross smashed a long range effort wide of the target.
The vocal support inside the stadium was driving the hosts forward as the match approached the final 30 minutes and Walters very nearly teed up Crouch inside the box with a stunning delivery that forced Jones into turning the ball nervously behind his own goal.
From the resulting corner the game should have taken a giant swing in Stoke’s favour. Arnautovic picked out Crouch with another sublime centre, his header was met with real aplomb and Smalling unnaturally slung his hands in the air and blocked the England striker’s effort at goal.
Referee Michael Oliver incredibly waved play on. Much to the frustration of the home supporters, players and management, who were left bewildered by the official’s decision.
The Potters’ onslaught continued. Diouf saw a thumping volley deflect just wide by Evans, before Walters whipped in another inviting centre that almost found the unmarked Crouch at the near post.
Dutchman van Gaal introduced both Adnan Januzaj and Ander Herrera from the bench as he looked to ignite his struggling side, and to his credit the double switch nearly paid off as the talented Herrera picked out van Persie, who controlled and dinked an effort over Begovic and inches wide of the post.
That was as close as United were to come to stealing the victory, with the hosts looking the more likely to grab a decisive third goal of the afternoon during the final exchanges, with Crouch going agonisingly close to netting the winner.
The tall striker had been causing problems throughout the encounter to the Red Devils defence, and it appeared that he would have the final say on the game when his header at goal left de Gea stranded, only for the post to come to the Spaniard’s rescue.
Van Persie headed wide in a rare United attempt at goal, before substitute Oussama Assaidi danced his way into the penalty box in stoppage time and curled an effort straight into the arms of the grateful de Gea.