A run of vital fixtures for United began with the visit of Stoke City to Old Trafford, and a chance for the reds to bounce back from their disappointing exit from the cup at the hands of Liverpool. Having only managed a point away to the Potters earlier in the season, it was imperative for United’s title chances that all 3 points were secured, especially given the difficulty of the next 4 league fixtures. Despite Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones remaining side-lined, United’s injury crisis was somewhat relieved by the return of Rio Ferdinand to the defence, with Ben Amos making a rare start for the ill David De Gea.
On perhaps the chilliest night of the year at Old Trafford, the game offered little to warm those in attendance, as United set up base camp in the Stoke half, probing and prodding but without finding any cutting edge. Scholes, who looked the most dangerous for United, came close with a rasping volley from the edge of the box, which Thomas Sorensen was glad to see narrowly go wide of his near post. Whilst offering little down the other end, Stoke were defending admirably, limiting Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez to fleeting glimpses of the ball, making for a potentially frustrating evening. A lapse in concentration on 38 minutes however prized open the door for United, as a clever pass from Scholes into Park saw the Korean winger hacked down by Jermain Pennant, and handed the reds a chance to lead from the spot. Up stepped Hernandez, who effortlessly dispatched his penalty into the bottom corner, and handed the reds a well deserved half time advantage.
A solitary goal advantage against a dangerous Stoke side was unlikely to suffice for United, who were relieved to have another opportunity to kill the game off from the penalty spot 8 minutes from the restart, this time John Walters the culprit, hauling down the onrushing Antonio Valencia. Berbatov stepped up this time, and in true Berbatov fashion, slotted the ball nonchalantly past Sorensen and ultimately ended any realistic Stoke challenge. The introduction of Cameron Jerome for the visitors heralded some success, with the striker nearly grabbing Stoke a lifeline, his header was well saved by Ben Amos however, sprawling away to his left in what was a comfortable evening for the young United keeper. A sombre Old Trafford crowd burst into song upon news filtering through that Darron Gibson had just handed Everton the lead against Manchester City on Merseyside, and so comfortable were United that they handed Paul Pogba a premier league debut for the final 15 minutes.
Pogba appeared to revel in his brief cameo, adding extra dynamism to the United midfield, displaying great athleticism and confidence for such a young player. It was the Frenchman who started the move which should have brought United’s 3rd in stoppage time, only for Dimitar Berbatov to somehow miss from 6 yards out. It was the only blemish on what was a crucially important night for the reds, with the gap on leaders Manchester City reduced to merely goal difference, and United poised to make their customary assault on the title.
Amos – 6 Had little to do but did so well.
Smalling – 6 Dealt with the very limited Walters.
Ferdinand – 7 Added calm to heart of defence.
Evans – 7 Competently handled physical presence of Crouch.
Evra – 7 Continued his recent good form.
Valencia – 7 Rampaged down the right hand side.
Scholes – 8 MOTM Showed he can still easily control premier league games.
Carrick – 7 Partnered Scholes well.
Park – 6 Smart run to earn first penalty.
Hernandez – 6 Frustrated in first half, good penalty.
Berbatov – 6 Glimpses of brilliances, coupled with careless finishing.
Pogba – 6 Showed glimpses of why there is such a buzz about him.