For once Manchester United endured a worse day than Manchester City, dropping points for the first time this season, and this morning they lead the Premier League only on goal difference. Not that City will relish a trip here when their time comes, for the arrival of Peter Crouch has made Stoke City even more formidably vigorous opponents. They proved it with a performance so committed that the home crowd, once officially recorded as the loudest in the country, rose as one to roar approval for their team's first point in seven jousts with United.
The champions, missing the injured Wayne Rooney and losing Javier Hernandez in the opening few minutes, took the lead through Nani but were pegged back by Crouch's first goal for a team who thoroughly deserved their draw and could just as easily have won as lost. It was thrilling stuff from start to finish and it was easy to imagine television audiences all over the world being glued to the screen.
Phil Jones, who had to switch to central defence from full-back when Jonny Evans suffered a recurrence of an ankle injury in the warm-up, and the returning Rio Ferdinand were kept at full stretch by Crouch and his sidekick Jon Walters. Stoke's wide players Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant whipped in the crosses and, of course, there were Rory Delap's howitzers to deal with too. In those circumstances, United's goalkeeper David de Gea was always going to receive another sharp-elbowed lesson in his crash course into English football. He came out of it well and will be the better for the experience, the occasional uncertainty in handling under pressure more than compensated by a series of outstanding saves. If there was a disappointment, it was that Dimitar Berbatov and substitute Michael Owen did not make more of their game time.
"Maybe a draw is a fair result," Sir Alex Ferguson conceded. "Making all the changes maybe unsettled us a bit. But I was pleased with the performance of the lads. They played like real champions and battled hard. They weren't cowed by them so we are quite pleased."
Rooney's absence was explained by a minor hamstring niggle which he does not expect to keep him out of Tuesday's Champions' League tie at home to Basle. The clue was in a tweet from his wife Coleen just before midnight on Friday revealing that far from being tucked up at the team hotel he was watching a Beyoncé video alongside her. A later change – very late – was the introduction at right-back of Antonio Valencia, originally a substitute, after Evans pulled out.
Then United lost Hernandez with only a few minutes played. There was a case for the referee, Peter Walton, to have awarded United a penalty and sent off Jonathan Woodgate that early. The visitors benefited from a ricochet that allowed Darren Fletcher to send Hernandez clear and Woodgate, challenging from behind, made no contact with the ball while sending the striker tumbling to the ground. There was not only no penalty, but Hernandez was unable to continue. He limped to the dressing room holding a hip and Owen came on.
In that furious start, Stoke appeared to be living up to the worst stereotyping, Glenn Whelan collecting a yellow card inside the first five minutes for crashing into Patrice Evra. Jones, determinedly adventurous even from centre-half, had a header scraped away by Delap, but was then grateful that Walton rightly saw Crouch leaning all over him before heading wide a corner from barely three yards out.
United predictably played the smoother football and took the lead from one of their best moves. In the 27th minute Nani set off in the inside-right position, received a neatly played pass from Fletcher and swerved inside Woodgate's feeble challenge before finding the bottom corner of the net. He was later presented with a glorious chance by Stoke's goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, unwisely attempting to dribble out of goal and hounded by Ashley Young, but Nani hit a wild shot high and wide. De Gea meanwhile earned his team-mates' gratitude for a series of saves. The first was high up, diverting a fierce rising drive from Andy Wilkinson on to the crossbar and the second was low down and equally impressive as Walters' shot flew at him through a defender's legs.
He was blameless for the equaliser, unlike Jones, who lost Crouch at a corner and could only watch the lanky striker head powerfully in. A couple of minutes later the more senior partner was at fault however, Ferdinand allowing Pennant's chip to drop over his shoulder for Crouch to chest down and shoot. The ball had bounced just a little too high for a strong contact and De Gea was able to divert the effort for a corner. Crouch missed a couple of late opportunities, as did the substitute Ryan Giggs, latest of all, volleying wide from Nani's cross.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Begovic; Wilkinson (Huth, 83), Shawcross, Woodgate, Wilson; Pennant (Jerome, 90), Delap (Whitehead, 85), Whelan, Etherington; Walters, Crouch.
Manchester United (4-4-2): De Gea; Valencia, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Nani Anderson Fletcher Young (Giggs, 70); Berbatov (Welbeck, 70), Hernandez (Owen, 11).
Referee Peter Walton.
Man of the match De Gea (Manchester United).Reuse content