The glamour was at Wembley, the high emotion at St James' Park, but for Manchester United the lonely run to the title continues. They have been so far ahead for so long that it would have required an earthquake rather than mere defeat in last Monday's Manchester derby to unseat them.
United require seven points from their final half-dozen fixtures to secure a 20th league title; only the where and when of their coronation need to be confirmed and the likeliest date is at Arsenal on 28 April. If you believe Manchester City will lose their next two matches, it might be as early as Sunday evening.
It took precisely three minutes and 14 seconds for the faint question marks posed by their defeat by City at Old Trafford to dissolve away. By the end Robin van Persie, who found the net for the first time since February, was talking of breaking Chelsea's Premier League record of 95 points, achieved under Jose Mourinho in 2005. If United's remaining opponents put up the kind of feeble resistance Stoke mustered, that record has every chance of falling.
United already have more points (80) than when they won the title in 1997 and as many as when they retained it four years later. Here, Sir Alex Ferguson was relaxed enough to employ Wayne Rooney as a midfielder and wave to the bank of supporters to his right who were taunting Stoke with the chant of "Who the f***** hell are you?"
Once it was easy enough to know who Stoke City were. They were the club with a brand of football that was hard, physical and in its own way as distinctive as Barcelona's. The Britannia Stadium was among the most intimidating arenas in the country, where few apart from United had managed to chisel out points.
Although they performed better than they had against Aston Villa the weekend before, Stoke are an unrecognisable and fast-disintegrating club these days and one of the Sunday papers had predicted that had Manchester United "tonked" them here, Tony Pulis would be asked to resign as manager.
Stoke were not tonked but they were comfortably beaten even by the standards of a United side that has now won nine of its 10 matches at the Britannia Stadium. The Stoke chairman, Peter Coates, is made of steely stuff but the statistics piling up against Pulis are damning – one win in his last 14 games, one clean sheet in the last 15 and two goals in the last seven. Unless those figures can be turned around, Stoke are the clearest candidates for the third and final relegation place.
The anxiety on the faces of those who crowded round the televisions on the stadium concourses as they watched Sunderland's remarkable victory in the Tyne-Wear derby showed that they knew it.
The crowd were loud and raucous, far more aggressive than they had been the previous Saturday. On 14 minutes they broke into sustained applause for Kameron Bourne, a 14-year-old Stoke supporter who had died in his sleep during the week. There were isolated, distasteful cries of "Munich" directed at those from further up the M6 but at the final whistle there was no booing. There may have been no minute's silence for Margaret Thatcher but before kick-off Stoke employed a form of Churchillian rhetoric in the form of the Foo Fighters singing "The Pretender" (key lyric, "What if I say I will never surrender?") accompanied by footage of their players scoring the kind of goals that have not been seen at the Britannia this year.
Pulis's defenders were not for turning quickly enough in the box and within four minutes the white flags began fluttering over the Britannia. Nursing what he described as "a stinking cold", Pulis acknowledged that the goals Stoke conceded had been unforgivably lax.
The first, put away by Michael Carrick, was probably not even a shot. As Phil Jones's drive from Van Persie's corner was blocked, the midfielder seemed to direct a pass back into the six-yard box towards Javier Hernandez. It missed its target but ended up in the corner of Asmir Begovic's net.
Carrick would have been surprised to see Rooney playing alongside him and the experiment worked better than Fabio Capello's brief design of using David Beckham as a sweeper. The instincts to go for goal that have been with him since he was playing on the streets of Croxteth could not be entirely abandoned, but Rooney played well enough to win the man-of-the-match award.
"He was brilliant," said Ferguson. "I was thinking he possibly required a different role in terms of getting his confidence back. He has been under a bit of criticism – nothing serious, but there were some doubts nonetheless. I thought a spell in midfield might do him the world of good."
Van Persie had squandered one opportunity to break his goal drought when driving Hernandez's fabulous diagonal pass slap into the side-netting. Then midway through the second half Andy Wilkinson needlessly brought the Dutchman down.
He elected to take the penalty himself and so strong was the wind that he had to re-spot it twice before striking a goal that released a dam-burst of emotions.
Van Persie ran over to the United coach, Rene Meulensteen, who was standing in the technical area, before enveloping Ferguson in a bear hug. "He could have killed me, he forgets I am 71," his manager smiled.
- More about:
- Antonio Valencia
- Javier Hernandez
- Manchester United
- Premier League
- Stoke City
- Wayne Rooney