The league leaders were pegged back by the Potters with the England forward opening his account for a sixth Premier League club as the match finished level at the Britannia Stadium
Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to draft Antonio Valencia in at right-back after Jonny Evans was injured in the warm-up, requiring Phil Jones to move into the centre. Star striker Wayne Rooney missed out with a hamstring strain, providing Dimitar Berbatov an opportunity to remind his manager of his ability.
United looked threatening on the break early on with Chicharito bursting forward into a one-on-one situation with Asmir Begovic, but Jonathan Woodgate recovered to reach forward and get just enough on the ball. The Mexican striker, though, required treatment after clattering into Begovic and was substituted a few minutes later.
The Potters might well have gone down to 10 men after six minutes, with Glenn Whelan booked for a hideous lunge on Patrice Evra.
Phil Jones showed great determination when he forced his way down the left, past two players through sheer force of will and saw his cross rebound off the face of Woodgate, but Stoke carried danger at the other end, not only from set-pieces but also displaying some attractive passing going forward.
After several scrappy minutes without incident, substitute Michael Owen dragged multiple defenders out of position just outside the box, allowing Nani to maraud through, having completed a smart one-two with Darren Fletcher, jink away from his remaining marker and slice home a quality finish low into the corner.
But United could not be complacent and immediately after the goal David de Gea was forced into an excellent save. As Stoke countered, the ball broke to the onrushing Andy Wilkinson, who burst into the box and unleashed a stinging shot bound for the top corner, but the Spaniard reacted very well to deflect it wide.
Nani might have doubled his tally a minute later, after Ashley Young capitalised on a Ryan Shawcross error to run at Begovic. The Potters keeper was unable to stop Young feeding Nani for a first-time shot, at a tight angle but with an open goal, yet the Portuguese missed the target.
Another great effort from De Gea was then required when Jonathan Walters hit a rasping shot bound for the far bottom corner. The young stopper dived to his right to get a small but vital touch, ensuring a half-time lead for the league leaders.
United enjoyed some pretty but aimless possession in the Stoke box that came to nothing after the restart, and a moment of contrast was provided soon after when Crouch rose to meet Matt Etherington’s corner, heading a simple finish home, helped by the unmoving De Gea, to score his first goal for his new side.
Just moments later, with the Britannia crowd in full song, there might have been a second for the tall striker, who snuck in behind the hesitant Rio Ferdinand to have a close-range effort, but De Gea made an instinctual block to keep it out.
There was no doubt that Stoke were the team in control as the midpoint of the second half arrived, with Jermaine Pennant and Etherington causing problems on the wings. De Gea was forced to tackle Crouch with his feet when Pennant supplied him in the box, with shouts for a penalty rightly ignored.
Marc Wilson was next to test the young Spaniard with a free-kick that rocketed through to the United keeper, who rose to punch it away firmly, continuing to keep his side in the game.
The Red Devils, though, felt they should have had a penalty with 20 minutes to go when Shawcross appeared to be hit on the arm by Evra’s shot.
Both sides continued to trade blows but clear-cut chances were few and far between, with Crouch still the focal point for Stoke. With five minutes of normal time remaining, he showed good strength to hold off the defender and control with his chest, but his shot on the turn flashed wide.
Ryan Giggs then wasted the chance to snatch a late winner for the Red Devils as he sliced wide at the far post but the result keeps United top, on goal difference, despite losing their 100% league record.