Nani rises to the occasion to put United in the driving seat again

Manchester United 2 Stoke City 1
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The Independent Football

Yet again they underwhelmed, yet again it did not matter as Nani's goal was enough to move Manchester United three points clear at the top of the Premier League.

A season and a half after he proclaimed himself the natural successor to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese is fulfiling his undoubted promise, and in this most unpredictable of seasons, Sir Alex Ferguson is now able to count on such contributions.

With Wayne Rooney missing, there was another goal for Javier Hernandez, who has now managed six in his seven Premier League starts, before Dean Whitehead equalised shortly after half-time. After that Nani was the United player wanting the ball, relishing the responsibility of making the difference, and he produced quality when it was most necessary, driving into the corner just after the hour, before the tension had a chance to set in.

For several months, this season has appeared to be all about getting the job done and, still unbeaten, that is what United did yet again at a time when their energy levels can hardly have been lower.

Last night's win was recorded with half-a-dozen changes and with Ferguson claiming that Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney are doubtful for Sunday's FA Cup game against Liverpool, despite Ferdinand tweeting that he had just been rested.

Clear at the top, with a game in hand on second-placed Manchester City, they can enjoy their neighbours' trip to Arsenal this evening with a nine-point lead on champions Chelsea, who led United by six points in September.

Heading in to what was set to be a pivotal week of matches against Arsenal and Chelsea, which was postponed, Ferguson claimed that if United were top of the table today they would have a fine chance of winning a 19th title and there they are thanks to 10 points from four games over the festive period.

Taken in isolation, their performances may not impress but they are now unbeaten in 25 matches in the Premier League and have won 10 of their 11 home games in the league this season. Whether they have another gear to go to or this is it, it may be an irrelevant debate.

"I think we're going to be in the shake up," Ferguson said last night. "Once you get to the new year it gives you a good guide where you are going to be at the end of the season and history tells you we play better in the second half and big games are not an issue. We relish that. You can look at as many stats as you like, shots at goal, passes, things like that, but I look at our home performances and our home performances have been fantastic.

"We have dropped some points away but that doesn't mean we didn't play well. We're an easy target for that kind of thing. We've got to dismiss it and concentrate on what our ambitions are – which are to win the league.

"Nani is capable of what he did tonight – it was a fantastic goal, a great strike – with either foot. He's always a threat and he's got a good return of goals now."

The United manager claimed that Hernandez's opener was a result of him being told to run to the near post but it was about much more than that. Dimitar Berbatov passed wide to Nani and the Portuguese clipped the ball in for the Mexican, who had run across centre-half Ryan Shawcross, to back-heel in.

United had a warning right at the start of the second half – when Turkish midfielder Tuncay Sanli headed wide from a Matthew Etherington cross from the left – but the home side failed to heed it. Soon afterwards, a ball in from a similar area pulled the visitors level.

It was five minutes after the break when Tuncay cut in past Chris Smalling and bent in an in-swinging cross that was glanced in by Whitehead, leaving Nemanja Vidic to criticise Patrice Evra for his slack marking.

But on the hour, Hernandez picked Nani out on the edge of the box, with Danny Collins backing off, and the winger thumped a shot into the corner for his eighth goal of the season.

This time there was no response from Stoke and Ryan Giggs might have added a third when he lifted a shot over the bar following a cross from substitute Michael Owen.

"They know how to win games and there's a mentality at the football club, just like you can get used to losing," the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, said. "This club is used to winning and it's ingrained within the club. It gives them that edge and will hold them in good stead again this season.

"I'm certain they'll have a run when things won't go that well but they've got the quality and the depth to do it again."

Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak, Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Gibson (Carrick, 78), Fletcher, Giggs; Berbatov, Hernandez (Owen, 78). Substitutes not used Amos (gk), Anderson, Fabio, Evans, Obertan.

Stoke City (4-4-1-1): Begovic; Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Collins; Delap (Walters, 69), Whitehead, Wilson, Etherington (Pennant, 68); Tuncay; Jones (Fuller, 74). Substitutes not used Sorensen (gk), Higginbotham, Whelan, Pugh.

Referee M Clattenburg (Co Durham).

Attendance 73,401.