Scholes transforms 'horrible' place into dream destination

Stoke City 0 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Football

In his analysis of how United secured their most recent title Sir Alex Ferguson has, with almost tedious regularity, ascribed huge significance to a difficult 1-0 win at the Britannia Stadium last Boxing Day, and here was another chill afternoon offering signs of a frosty reception. Stoke would be fighting "from the first minute to the 100th", their manager, Tony Pulis, proffered in his programme notes, reminding United that "the Britannia is a horrible place".

The pity was that his players forgot the script. Instead, United strolled to the top of the Premier League with a result which provided more sense of wonderment at the agelessness of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. True, the afternoon's only moment of contention was referee Howard Webb's decision not to show Scholes a second red card in as many appearances, for a blatant handball from Liam Lawrence's cross, six minutes after his yellow for a second Scholesian tackle of the afternoon, on the same player. Scholes' salvation will perhaps have United's rivals remembering the penalty Webb handed them in the title-defining 5-2 win over Tottenham last April and scenting conspiracy.

But the afternoon belonged to the 34-year-old Scholes for more laudable reasons. Always allowed to operate with five yards of space in front of him by a Stoke midfield which was part overawed and part technically overwhelmed, he simply batted metronomic 20-yard passes to the flanks and watched United fly. There was a moment towards the end of the first half when Scholes lost a shin-pad, and after Darren Fletcher had handed it back he just resumed work, clutching it in his hand. It was that kind of walk in the park. "The best player on the pitch by a country mile," was how Pulis described Scholes later.

Giggs was required for the goals, though. The shouts of "You'll never be Ronaldo" were being aimed in Nani's direction after plenty of possession for the winger had again failed to yield a telling cross. It was six minutes after Giggs had replaced him that the veteran stole into space to push the low ball Fletcher had laid across the penalty box into Dimitar Berbatov's path for a tap-in. Berbatov immediately pointed at Giggs. He was trying to say that he knew his own part in the 62nd-minute finish was a technicality.

Ferguson also observed the difference Giggs had made. "Nani did pretty well but Ryan gives you something else," he said. "He has the intelligence to take up good positions. For the goal he went on a lovely run behind them."

When Giggs also hoisted a free-kick from the right 15 minutes after the opener and John O'Shea rose ahead of Ryan Shawcross to head in United's second, the stadium TV station panned to the United banner which read: "Arise, Sir Ryan Giggs." But somehow Giggs managed to ruin the perfect storyline three minutes later when he controlled the finest pass of the afternoon – Scholes's 20-yard ball, raked across the Stoke box – and ballooned it over the bar. It would have been his 100th Premier League goal and 150th in all competitions for United.

Pulis's analysis was uncomplicated. "Best team won," he said. "For us to compete against top-four teams we have to have everyone at their maximum. I don't know why we didn't. We've had a couple of games like this and it's the first time this year we haven't given it a right good go."

Wayne Rooney, whose partnership with Berbatov continues to stutter and frustrate, pirouetted as early as the third minute into an overhead kick from Nani's chipped cross which sailed narrowly over bar.

Antonio Valencia, still looking for his first United goal and the confidence it will give him, seemed to have found it when Shawcross lunged badly towards the Ecuadorean as he received Berbatov's pass and allowed him to race free into the area. Valencia's chip over the advancing Thomas Sorensen rolled narrowly wide of the goalkeeper's right-hand post.

Stoke's only opportunity came Lawrence's way soon afterwards but the winger failed to look up and assess the possibilities after Matthew Etherington had sent him into United's area and he fired across goal.

Attendance: 27,500

Referee: Howard Webb

Man of the match: Scholes

Match rating: 7/10