United's first away victory of the campaign keeps the pressure on Chelsea
In what had been a chaotic week at Old Trafford with the astonishing Wayne Rooney saga finally drawing to an end on Friday, the Red Devils arrived at the Britannia Stadium knowing that only a victory would keep the pressure on current runaway leaders Chelsea, who had extended their lead to eight points with their comfortable win over Wolves yesterday.
Sir Alex Ferguson opted for Mexican striker Javier Hernandez to partner Dimitar Berbatov up front for United, whilst John O’Shea was installed into the back line, which had shipped two goals to West Bromwich Albion last week.
Patrice Evra was deployed on the left midfield in a line-up that consisted of a number of changes from the midweek win over Turkish champions Burssapor in the Champions League.
Stoke City drafted in Marc Wilson to replace the suspended Dean Whitehead as Tony Pulis attempted to put an end to four consecutive defeats against the recently dispersed champions.
With the sun shining brightly at the Britannia Stadium accompanied by a cracking atmosphere, the game began at a hectic pace with both sides looking to gain the early initiative.
The Potters pressed United all over the pitch, seemingly driven on by their ever loyal home support, but it was the visitors who threatened first, when from a Stoke corner kick the away side broke at lightning pace. The ball was eventually delivered to Hernandez, who chose the wrong option by looking for his strike partner Berbatov instead of going for goal.
Stoke responded by continuing to bombard the United box with a series of corner kicks, high balls and the ever dangerous Rory Delap throw causing panic in the visitors back-line.
It was against the run of the play when United took the lead after a sustained period of Stoke pressure. A corner kick taken short, and then delivered to the back post by the in-form Nani, where Nemanja Vidic found Hernandez, who somehow managed to guide a superb header beyond the outstretched arm of Thomas Sorenson.
It was yet another example of the Mexican’s goal poaching instinct, which could serve United well if they are to catch Chelsea in the title race.
The moment of controversy which arguably changed the dynamics of the match then promptly followed. Gary Neville, who had already been booked for a foul on Mathew Etherington, recklessly lunged in at the winger again and mistimed his challenge. Another yellow card should have followed for the former England man, but to the dismay of the home support, the referee kept Neville on the pitch.
At the double | Hernandez celebrates with his United team-matesThe second half began in similar fashion to the first, with Stoke on the front foot and United trying to seal the game on the counter attack.
There were half hearted appeals from the visitors when Patrice Evra was nudged in the box and tumbled over after United had again hit the home side on the break.
Hernandez then had a chance to seal the much needed three points for Alex Ferguson’s side, when a fine Edwin Van Der Sar throw found Berbatov in acres of space. The Bulgarian then laid on a perfect cross for Hernandez who volleyed wide, although the young hotshot was at full stretch.
With nine minutes of the game remaining Tuncay picked the ball up on the right hand side and curled a beautiful strike into the top left hand corner to give Van Der Sar no chance. United’s game-plan of soaking up the relentless Stoke pressure had appeared to backfire badly.
That goal had looked to have put a huge dent to United’s chances of regaining the championship, but the spirit that has been an integral part of Ferguson’s side for over two decades was again in full force as United struck late on yet again.
A cross from the right found the unmarked Patrice Evra who’s volley reached Hernandez in the six yard box, and the striker converted from close range.
This late winner could be pivotal in a season which has seen United under-perform and throw away countless number of points from winning positions.
The result was somewhat harsh on Stoke, who thought they had gained a monumental point through Tuncay’s superb leveller, but after a pulsating match it was the Red Devils who won a hard fought three points.
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