Cunning plan leaves Ferguson smiling

Manchester United 2 (Hernandez 38 pen, Berbatov 53 pen) Stoke City 0

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The Independent Football

Steven Spielberg's first film was called Duel and was about a car driver, played by Dennis Weaver, who becomes convinced that a trucker is trying to kill him. Each time he tries to accelerate away, he relaxes a little but then glances into his wing mirrors to see the big brown tanker, belching diesel smoke, blaring its horn and coming ever closer to running him off the road. This morning, Roberto Mancini will understand the feeling.

When news came through from Goodison Park that Darron Gibson had put Everton ahead, the Stretford End was more animated than it had been at any stage of a drab, predictable encounter, settled by two penalties. It seems astonishing but Manchester City and Manchester United are now separated only by the six goals Mancini's side scored here in October.

Sir Alex Ferguson played down the significance of the evening, smiling that it had all been part of a wider plan that one of his former players should score against Manchester City. "Obviously, today is significant but we have to remember that it is the last day in January," he said. "I always see March as the important month and we have to play City in April."

That the match was decided by two penalties will raise a forest of eyebrows outside the confines of Old Trafford, although referee Mike Jones might have awarded four. There was a first-half handball from Robert Huth and a foul on Patrice Evra that could have been punished by two more spot-kicks. For the record, the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, thought Manchester United's first penalty "debatable" but considered the felling of Evra to be a stonewall spot-kick.

The loss of his two frontline goalkeepers, Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea, before a ball was kicked meant United began this match with 11 injured footballers, although, significantly, they are starting to trickle back.

Ferguson thought Wayne Rooney, Luis Nani and Ashley Young would be fit to face Chelsea on Sunday. He also said farewell to Ravel Morrison, who but for a disastrous private life might have been one of his last great youth products but is now bound for West Ham. "He is better out of Manchester," Ferguson said. "He has great talent but it is how he deals with it that's important."

It must be likely that another youth-team graduate, Ben Amos, will be keeping goal at Stamford Bridge, although he will not enjoy a quieter game than he did here on his Premier League debut. Pulis selected four forwards and gave them licence to shoot at the United rookie. They carried out his instructions so poorly that Amos made just one save, a header from Cameron Jerome that he required two attempts to gather.

The tannoys reminded Old Trafford endlessly that they were watching "the Barclays Premier League champions" which amid all the analysis into why United have been so lacking in grandeur is too often forgotten.

Ferguson and Muhammad Ali both turned 70 recently and this season Ferguson's United sides have resembled the late-era Ali; often pressed against the ropes but surviving on experience, cunning and flashes of long-remembered skill.

Before United broke through on a cold often listless night, there were moments of the old brilliance. Paul Scholes met an awkward lay-off with impeccable technique, his foot right over the ball, sending it slamming into the advertising hoardings. There were also a couple of Dimitar Berbatov's sublime little touches.

Nevertheless, this was not an electric night, epitomised by the empty seats that dotted the Stretford End, although when the breakthrough did arrive it was with a burst of controversy. There were seven minutes of the first half remaining when Jermaine Pennant challenged Park Ji-sung in the area. At first it seemed he had got the ball, although by making his tackle from behind he risked a penalty that Pulis greeted with both hands on track-suited hips.

United have made a habit of missing from the spot this season and in Rooney's continuing absence it fell to Javier Hernandez to take the penalty. Thomas Sorensen has a formidable record in these kinds of situations but the young Mexican sent the keeper the wrong way for his seventh goal of what has been a subdued season.

Eight minutes after the restart, came the second penalty, this time taken by Berbatov after Antonio Valencia had gone down under pressure from Jonathan Walters. Sorensen chose right but the ball squeezed between his fingertips and the post.

The result, however, was much the same. United were two goals up against a side that had not won here since Tommy Docherty was in the home dugout. Realistically the game was over and the old chants swept around Old Trafford: "Stand up for the champions."

Match facts

Substitutes: Manchester United Pogba 5 (Hernandez, 72). Stoke Jerome 5 (Crouch, 57), Fuller (Walters, 75), Delap (Palacios, 75).

Booked: Manchester United Scholes.

Stoke Wilkinson, Walters, Huth.

Man of the match Berbatov. Match rating 7/10.

Possession: Manchester United 60% Stoke 40%.

Attempts on target: Manchester United 7 Stoke 3.

Referee M Jones (Cheshire). Attendance 74,719.