What was initially thought to be a straightforward evening’s work against a Stoke City side that have yet to earn a single point at Old Trafford in the Premier League era turned into an uncomfortable night’s work, as Manchester United were left hanging on to a 1-goal advantage having spurned several presentable second half opportunities. This was far tighter than Saturday’s casual slaying of Hull City; Stoke gave little away, and the parting image of the night was of former United striker Mame Biram Diouf shaking his head after he was spectacularly denied an equaliser twice late on. Of course, the result made it for wins from four for the home side, but it was far from routine.
There was a slightly incredulous feel as the first half drew to a close with the scores equal, but despite Stoke’s lack of threat, United had made little of their dominance in possession. The exceptions to that were Maroaune Fellaini’s second goal for the club early on, drilling a header into Asmir Begovic’s goal having met Ander Herrera’s deep, high cross. The Belgian was United’s greatest threat at times, and almost bagged his second of the evening after Chris Smalling’s initial shot found its way to his feet barely two metres from goal. Begovic reacted quickly to smother the close range shot, but in truth, he had little else to do. Sandwiched inbetween those chances was a rare sight at goal for Steven Nzonzi, who drilled home an equaliser from the edge of the area after Bojan Krkic had burst into United’s defence, which had enjoyed a relatively quiet 40 minutes or so until that point. James Wilson’s second competitive start for his club, a result of the ankle injury sustained by Wayne Rooney on Saturday was somewhat undermined by the lack of intensity on show, save for decent shout for a penalty after Geoff Cameron had bundled him over.
Despite clear instruction from Louis van Gaal to up the ante after a relatively quiet opening half, the way in which United restored their advantage was delightfully simplistic, and surely maddening for Stoke manager Mark Hughes. Juan Mata’s curling free kick on the hour mark had time enough to bounce metres away from goal before nestling into the net, with the touch that a prone Begovic was anticipating never arriving. Marcos Rojo claimed it as his own but his contact was barely noticeable. The game then became predictably stretched, with Stoke seeking a second equaliser. That certainly benefited Wilson, who was able to dance beyond two defenders after Mata’s pass before curling his shot just wide after a dangerous burst of pace. Stephen Ireland was forced to accept a sacrificial booking having taken out the England striker after another dangerous run almost left him with a worrying clear route to goal. His substitution for Radamel Falcao was a slight disservice given the threat he was posing appeared far greater than Robin van Persie’s.
Tension rose as the evening continuedwith United’s lead still so slender, as Fellaini blasted wide with a clear sight of goal after Herrera’s run. A warning was served from Marko Arnautovic’s dangerous cross in the closing stages, which Chris Smalling did well to turn behind him with danger lurking nearby. That soon became a siege in stoppage time with Diouf’s header denied by David de Gea’s superb reflexes after Arnautovic’s delivery.The disbelief only grew as the Senegalese struck a close-range effort that seemed destined to bulge the net, but for Ashley Young’s perfectly timed goal-line clearance. Van Gaal will surely point out those missed opportunities as key when he dissects this game in the coming days, but the Iron Tulip will surely appreciate those late interventions and that fourth-successive victory, regardless of its imperfections.