Champions of the world, masters of the universe, but in the Potteries, where they put the boot in first and ask questions later, that sort of thing counts for nothing. Manchester United were rescued by Carlos Tevez's goal six minutes from time yesterday, although as tempers frayed and the champions strained to score the winning goal, it was the shortest fuse in English football that burned dangerously close.
That belonged to Wayne Rooney whose running battle with Abdoulaye Faye reached breaking point on the hour when Rooney swung an elbow at his opponent which, had it connected, would have earned him a three-match ban before Faye hit the turf. It was one of those wince-inducing moments of Rooney madness that can strike at any time and he was very lucky that he is less accurate with his elbows than his feet.
In the end it was Stoke who finished with 10 men, reduced in number by two wholly deserved yellow cards for Andy Wilkinson, whose brainless chopping down of Cristiano Ronaldo did for him just as Stoke looked like they might survive with a point. A few minutes earlier, Ronaldo had brought his heel down hard on Wilkinson's foot as he lay prone after another robust challenge. Like Rooney, Ronaldo was also rattled by Stoke, but Wilkinson did not have the wit to keep his nerve and stay on the pitch.
These are the kind of victories that Sir Alex Ferguson will no doubt look back upon should United retain their title in May and recognise that his team were capable, when the occasion demanded, of winning ugly – which is not a cruel reference to Tevez himself. The United manager admitted that he was about to substitute Tevez for Park Ji-Sung just seconds before the Argentine's goal made all the difference.
Ferguson protested that his team were not feeling any fatigue from their Club World Cup excursion to Japan this month, although he lost Rio Ferdinand to injury just an hour before kick-off. The defender will miss the game against Middlesbrough on Monday with a back problem that Ferguson admitted was a concern. "He [Ferdinand] has had this too many times," Ferguson said. "We have to get to the bottom of it. We hope he will be OK in 10 days."
In Ferdinand's place came Jonny Evans, who was not as sure-footed as he might have been, but benefited from another excellent performance from Nemanja Vidic, who demonstrated once again that difficult art of committing judicious fouls when the situation requires it and also made a brilliant late tackle on Richard Cresswell. Up front, United were less certain, this being only their third goal in the five league games since they beat Stoke 5-0 at Old Trafford.
Ferguson finished the game by bringing on Dimitar Berbatov, who made the goal for Tevez, switching Ryan Giggs to left-back and blasting away at Stoke with all four of his famous strikers. Gary Neville crossed into the area, Berbatov took the sweetest of touches to give himself the space in the area and then drilled in a cross that could have been a shot. Tevez volleyed it in from within the six-yard box.
It leaves United, with two games in hand on the rest, in no bad position at what is the halfway point for all those teams who have played 19 games. "If we can get to New Year's Day a couple of points adrift then we will be very happy," Ferguson said. "In the second half of the season we expect to kick on. We didn't know how coming back from Japan would affect them. The energy levels are good. It was difficult but sometimes in games like this you have to be patient."
Tony Pulis has all the makings of a Ferguson disciple, uncompromising and steeped in the old school, and he copied one of the old master's favourite tactics yesterday by missing the post-match press conference. His assistant Dave Kemp was uncontroversial in his manager's absence, although he did complain that "20,000 people in the stadium" saw Ronaldo kick out at Wilkinson "apart from the man who needed to see it".
Ricardo Fuller had the best of Stoke's chances, including one in the first minute when Edwin van der Sar hesitated to collect a loose ball. In comedy style, Fuller's boot fell off during one promising run into the area and then fell off again in the second half. Danny Pugh headed over from a Rory Delap long throw. The best of Stoke's chances came before the break.
The first of Wilkinson's two yellow cards came in the first half, for a totally unnecessary foul on Giggs as he ran towards his own goal. Quite why the Stoke fans thought Wilkinson deserving of applause as he walked off having been dismissed was anyone's guess. This game was all about keeping tempers intact which, in the event, Rooney and United just about managed.
Goals: Tevez (84) 0-1.
Stoke (4-4-2): Sorensen; Wilkinson, Abdoulaye Faye, Shawcross, Higginbotham; Delap (Davies, 74), Amdy Faye (Olofinjana, 90), Whelan, Pugh; Cresswell (Pericard, 90), Fuller. Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Lawrence, Tonge, Sonko.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Evans, Vidic, O'Shea (Berbatov, 64); Ronaldo, Scholes (Carrick 90), Fletcher, Giggs; Tevez, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Park, Welbeck, R Da Silva, Gibson, Kuszczak (gk).
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Stoke Cresswell, Wilkinson, Fuller, Whelan. Sent off: Wilkinson.
Booked: Manchester United Evans, Neville.
Man of the match: Vidic.