After the euphoria and eloquence of a record signing, back to the bleak and prosaic reality of a season in which retaining a place in the Champions’ League is beginning to look a very forlorn hope for Manchester United.
From the wreckage of a fifth defeat in eight since the turn of the year, there were extenuating circumstances: the loss of two centre-halves before the game had reached half-time. At least there was some vigour and fight from a second half which reminded you of schoolyard days when it’s the best three players stick the rest. United did not deserve another of those era-ending statistics in a campaign which has known many – this being Stoke’s first win over them here in 30 years.
But they were defeated, for all that. David Moyes can’t shake off his loser’s luck and Juan Mata’s arrival cannot disguise the fact that mediocrity resides everywhere in this team. When Moyes looked for players in reserve he found Danny Welbeck – a shadow of the player United need him to be – and when he looked to Ashley Young to finish off the game’s most gilt-edged chance, two yards out, he saw him place the ball wide, late on.
“There wasn’t a lot that I can say that we didn’t do well except put the ball in,” Moyes said. In the final third, United were desperately poor.
Moyes sounded like a man in denial when he responded bitterly to the question: “You must be disappointed with that performance?” He retorted that United “were the better team. We were really unlucky. We got to the byline eight or nine times and never found the ball.”
The omens had actually looked promising when he was able to call on Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie to start together for the first time in 20 matches against a Stoke side who had not won in the League since December 21 and been consigned to the relegation zone half an hour earlier.
We discovered for the first time where Juan Mata will fit in among those two – on the right of a three-man line behind the striker. But it looked like yet another of those Moyes afternoons from the moment Jonny Evans left the field with a tweaked hamstring and the game ten minutes old.
Mata and Rooney showed flashes of intuition but neither could make a discernible impression, as a gale ripped down the length of the pitch. United’s defence had the wind behind them but still found it more difficult to cope, as it twice held up the balls for floated into the right channel for Jonathan Walters. Peter Crouch miscued his connection with Walters’ first cross and a second sailed straight at David de Gea.
Charlie Adam, with his energy, was the game’s outstanding midfielder and United’s afternoon began unravelling when his 35-yard free kick – awarded for a marginal infringement after Chris Smalling’s challenge form behind Walters – was deflected in off the extended right leg of Michael Carrick. Then Jones, operating in place of Evans, was briefly rendered unconscious by a fall and stretchered off, forcing Moyes to deploy Carrick in his place. Welbeck was sent on and Rooney dropped to midfield.
United were level within 90 seconds of the restart, for which an impatient United arrived first. Marc Wilson headed a limp clearance to the feet of Mata who played the ball, with a first time touch, for van Persie who let it take two bounces and eased home. But Adam restored the lead within three minutes, fastening onto the ball Walters had nodded down after Marko Arnautovic’s airshot at it.
Stoke threw themselves into some vast tackles as United set about repairing the deficit – Wilson on Mata as he made to shoot was the best of them – and they roughed them up, too. A Walters tackle, two-footed, on Smalling was dire. But while Mark Hughes’ substitute, Oussama Assaidi, looked a threat, running Smalling inside out and then volleying narrowly over, Moyes’ own died a death. After Young’s miss from Smalling’s cross, a Rooney free-kick, tipped sharply onto the post by Asmir Begovic, was followed up by a weak Welbeck header and then a Tom Cleverley shot, levered well over the bar.
Hughes said he did not remember playing in United’s last League defeat here, on Boxing Day 1984. Those were difficult days for United, under Ron Atkinson, but the club at least finished fourth that year.
Stoke (4-5-1): Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters; Odemwingie, Adam, Whelan (Palacios, 83), Arnautovic (Assaidi, 72), Walters (Ireland, 60); Crouch.
Manchester Utd (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans (Rafael, 10), Jones (Welbeck, 43), Evra; Carrick, Cleverley; Mata, Rooney, Young; Van Persie (Hernandez, 79).
Referee: Neil Swarbrick.
Man of the match: Adam (Stoke)
Match rating: 7/10
Stoke 2 Man United 1 - in pictures
Stoke 2 Man United 1 - in pictures
1/8 David Moyes before the kick off
2/8 Arnautovic and Carrick tussle for the ball
3/8 Wayne Rooney battles with Glen Whelan for the ball
4/8 Charlie Adam celebrates scoring the first goal
5/8 Juan Mata on the ball for United
6/8 Van Persie equalises
7/8 Van Persie celebrates his goal
8/8 Charlie Adam celebrates scoring his second goal