There were two questions hanging over this game. Would Wayne Rooney score the two he required to reach 200 goals in the Premier League and would Rio Ferdinand wear a T-shirt supporting the game’s anti-racism campaign Kick It Out?
The answers were yes and no, although by the end there were more pressing questions about the quality of Sir Alex Ferguson’s defence.
On an October weekend a decade ago, the boy who gloried in street football in the alleys of Croxteth had, in David Seaman’s words, “given me the eye” and driven the ball gloriously past the Arsenal goalkeeper.
The goals Rooney scored yesterday were nothing like as memorable, although since one was in his own net, there was at least a novelty value. With his 27th birthday approaching, Rooney resembles Eric Cantona; a dominant figure in the Premier League, a less convincing one abroad. Curiously, these were his first for Manchester United this season and his opener was in the wrong net. It was almost the only time Stoke tested David De Gea’s questionable ability to hold on to a cross; a free-kick delivered by Charlie Adam that was aimed at Ryan Shawcross but which Rooney ran to intercept. He succeeded only in nodding it down and past his own keeper.
This was the sixth time this season United had fallen behind and the fact that they have won four of those matches is a testament to the brand of football that has been in Old Trafford’s DNA since Matt Busby began his rebuilding of the club just after the second world war.
Nevertheless, there was frustration in Ferguson’s voice as he ran through the fixtures. “We keep starting badly. There have been early goals against Fulham, Tottenham and now today. We keep giving ourselves uphill fights,” he said. “The first was an own goal, you can’t account for that but the second was a really slack one for us to lose.”
It did not prevent Stoke losing at Old Trafford, something they have done in every game they have played here since 1980. However, at 3-1 down it gave their manager, Tony Pulis, hope that ought to have been extinguished 30 seconds into the second half as Rooney looked up and delivered a perfect cross that seemed a goal the moment it left his instep. Danny Welbeck, running on to it between two defenders, did the rest.
Then, Michael Kightly sprinted at the heart of the United defence, brushed past Ferdinand, who once more seemed to justify Roy Hodgson’s argument that he was curtailing his international career for “footballing reasons”.
Once the ball was in the corner of De Gea’s net, the Stoke midfielder ran along the edge of the Stretford End with his arms outstretched. Pulis simply marched to the touchline, whistling with two fingers in his mouth to warn his team to concentrate. They didn’t.
That United’s fourth came from a corner, the area in which Stoke are supposed to excel, would have stung. Robin van Persie’s delivery was not properly cleared and, as it bobbled in the area, Rooney stabbed it home for the 200th and celebrated with a little wave.
While Rooney would take the headlines, Van Persie probably enjoyed the better game. There are not many similarities between the slender artist’s son from Rotterdam and Alan Shearer, except for the fact that both were centre-forwards who were superb crossers of the ball for other strikers.
The one that gave Rooney his 199th goal was beautifully delivered and Rooney squeezed past two defenders to score his second and United’s first. It energised a side that had started as uncertainly and nervously as they had in the 3-2 defeat by Tottenham.
In the Stoke goal, Asmir Begovic was wearing a florescent orange shirt that would have made him visible on a fogbound November night on the M6, and soon Ferguson’s array of strikers began to find his range. A shot from Welbeck skimmed the top of his bar, and then came a superbly-worked second. Antonio Valencia feigned to cross the ball deep into the Stoke area and then played it short to Van Persie, who sent it first time into the corner of Begovic’s net.
There was little Pulis could do except send on Michael Owen, who received a far warmer reception from Old Trafford than he would have done had he been fit to face Liverpool earlier in the month.
Given that Owen had produced only two displays of note in his three years at United – the winner in the Manchester derby and a wildly improbable hat-trick in Wolfsburg – this was somewhat of a surprise. There was a single reminder of the magic that once enthralled Anfield, a little near-post flick that might have produced a goal but now drew only a shy smile.
Manchester Utd (4-3-3): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia (Nani, 74), Carrick, Scholes (Anderson, 69); Rooney, Welbeck (Hernandez, 78), Van Persie.
Stoke (4-1-4-1): Begovic; Cameron, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson; N’Zonzi; Walters (Etherington, 69), Whitehead (Palacios, 86), Adam, Kightly (Owen, 74); Crouch.
Referee: Anthony Taylor.
Man of the match: Van Persie (Man United)
Match rating: 7/10