When Manchester United had conjured a third goal to engineer an old school Old Trafford comeback, there were overtures of the touchline ecstasy shared by Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Kidd when United clinched the title here 20 years ago, as the celebrations shared by David Moyes and his coach Phil Neville reached 10 yards onto the pitch. That’s just how close United had been to a crisis of firestorm proportions.
In that moment of delirium, the scoreline on the stadium feed of the match briefly stated it was 3-2 to Stoke City, which just about sums up how it feels around this place at the moment, with everyone waiting for evidence that a corner has been turned and no-one believing that it has.
United can reflect on the two headed goals in as many minutes, from Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, which turned the game from the losing position they took into the last quarter of an hour. But the tactics at that stage – throwing on every available striker and throwing every available ball into the box – were as desperate as the performance had been, for the large part.
You can take your pick as to which of half a dozen United players took the worst hiding from a particularly desperate first half. Chris Smalling looked most out of his depth in a defence which looked vulnerable every time Stoke employed the strategy to which United are transparently vulnerable, counter-attack rapidly and with numbers.
There was a sense of the centre simply not holding, in those desperate first 45 minutes. The supporters’ groans of despair with a deeply frustrating Nani descended to boos when he casually fired a 25-yard shot into the advertising hoardings. The mutinous mood was infectious as the overwhelmed defenders – Jonny Evans and Phil Jones – looked daggers at the overwhelmed midfield.
You wondered, then, why Marouane Fellaini was on the bench and not billeted to halt these tides of pressure, though Moyes could be forgiven that this was the kind of opposition that the Belgian could sit out. It took a mere three minutes for Stoke – invigorated by the vision and rapid movement of Marko Arnautovic and Stephen Ireland – to set the course of the calamity, when David de Gea’s fine instinctive save from Peter Crouch, who had manoeuvred himself to capitalise on full back Erik Peters’ very fine run and cross, took the ball to the feet of Evans, who conspired to canon the ball into the net off Crouch.
And though United did conjure an equaliser at the other end of the first period – Nani levering a ball from the right after 43 minutes which Rooney headed at Asmir Begovic before Robin van Persie gobbled up the rebound – the scoreline might have read 3-0 or 4-0 at the interval.
Arnautovic was beating Smalling at will, easing past him to begin a move which continued with Steven Nzonzi – the strong midfield presence that United lacked – deceiving Evans with a the flight of a lofted pass and ended with Jon Walters bringing an imperious, instinctive save from De Gea.
The best of the Spanish goalkeeper was also required to prevent Arnautovic scoring when he got in front of Smalling to shoot again, minutes later. There was a justice about the Austrian sending Stoke back ahead two minutes after the equaliser. His right-footed free kick, which he won by drawing Jones’s foul, arced over Van Persie’s head in the wall which deceived De Gea with its flight.
Arnautovic’s enforced departure four minutes after the interval – he had been unwell before the game – reduced Stoke’s momentum as much as the arrival of Adnan Janujaz, eight minutes later, created some for United at last. Their deep dependency on an 18-year-old is a concern. Within six minutes he had drawn fouls which had both Ireland and Wilson Palacios booked. Rooney, orchestrating back in midfield, sought him out whenever he could. The visitors drifted precariously deeper, hostage to the fortune which befell them and unable to maintain the energy levels to continue breaking out.
Hernandez was booked for rashly closing down Robert Huth with his feet raised – which the Stoke manager Mark Hughes, and Huth, felt should have earned him a dismissal. “It’s difficult to go against a 70,000 crowd. Sometimes [an official] has to be strong as well,” Hughes said.
Instead, it was United who were strong, finding the goals and holding on for dear life despite throwing away possession like confetti in the desperate closing minutes. The afternoon had been “very good, exciting and I really enjoyed it,” Moyes said. He was fooling no-one.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling (Valencia, 76), Jones, Evans, Evra; Carrick, Cleverley (Hernandez, 68); Nani (Januzaj, 58), Rooney, Kagawa; Van Persie.
Stoke (4-2-3-1): Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Pieters; Nzonzi, Palacios (Whelan, 70); Walters, Ireland, (Adam, 82) Arnautovic (Wilson, 49); Crouch.
Referee: Lee Mason.
Man of the match: Arnautovic (Stoke)
Match rating: 8/10
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