Stoke City 0 Manchester United 2: It was a night when bad weather briefly stopped play but a night, moreover, when Manchester United’s season may just have gained some precious momentum.
A freakish hailstorm led to the teams briefly departing the field in the first half, but United came alive in the second period and won through to a Capital One Cup semi-final against Sunderland with goals from Ashley Young and Patrice Evra.
The consequence is that David Moyes now finds himself just one step from his first final as United manager, in a competition where he was a losing semi-finalist with Everton in 2008. The Capital One Cup may not rank high on the list of priorities at Old Trafford but any silverware in this first season would be a boost for Moyes.
It was not pretty, understandably given the conditions, but it was a victory embellished by spectacular goals from both Young – his first in 19 months – and Evra, and means United, 3-0 winners at Aston Villa last weekend, will head into the festive fixtures hinting at a return to form, even if Wayne Rooney’s absence through injury may provide cause for worry.
Stoke had not beaten United in any competition since a side managed by Old Trafford old boy Lou Macari earned a 2-1 League Cup second-round first-leg win at the old Victoria Ground in September 1993, and even that was in an eventual losing cause. Yet they had lost only once at the Britannia this season and this had the look of an awkward evening. Quite how awkward soon became apparent.
The first half was all about the weather. It was a miserable night of driving wind and rain and the football was unsurprisingly scrappy. Never mind the popular question about Lionel Messi’s ability to do it on a cold night in Stoke – in the 29th minute, as the rain turned to hailstones, whipped around wildly by the wind, the referee Mark Clattenburg decided that not even Stoke could manage it and called both sides off.
The Stoke players, true to type, seemed rather more reluctant to go off but, amid a scattering of boos, both teams did eventually head back to their dressing rooms.
At that point, United had forced the only save of note with Anderson’s low shot held by Thomas Sorensen. For Anderson, anchoring the midfield alongside Phil Jones, it was the first start since September but he was not the only United player with something to prove.
Danny Welbeck may have scored twice in the win against Aston Villa on Sunday but he has had his ears warmed by manager Moyes’ words that he needed to emulate Rooney’s appetite for hard work in training. Welbeck could have a key role, given Moyes’ pre-match admission that Rooney’s absence here was down to an unspecified injury. And the Scot’s uncertain response – “We hope so” – when asked whether the England striker would be back for Christmas raised the nightmarish possibility of having no Rooney for the festive fixtures when thigh injury victim Robin van Persie is already out.
Welbeck’s first involvement almost led to an early goal. Picking up a ball in Stoke’s half, he threaded a pass to Young, who fired into the side-netting.
Although the United supporters kept the songs coming, things got little better after the hail-enforced delay – a situation summed up when Anderson’s ambitious attempt at a crossfield pass sent the ball flying off the pitch.
Yet as half-time approached there was almost a goal at either end. Geoff Cameron’s incursions down the Stoke right were a noteworthy feature of the game and his cross was flicked on by Jonathan Walters but just beyond Peter Crouch.
Then Jonny Evans’ heavy touch denied him a shot on goal at the far post when Chris Smalling headed on a Tom Cleverley corner.
Moyes sent on a second striker in the 57th minute as Javier Hernandez replaced Anderson and the impact was almost immediate. After Welbeck had looped a header over from a Young corner, the breakthrough came in the 62nd minute.
Young picked up a short free-kick from Cleverley just inside Stoke’s half and headed to goal. He fed a pass to Hernandez and, when the ball came back to him off the Mexican, struck a ferocious 25-yard shot which simply had too much power for Sorensen as it flew past him. It was his first goal for United since May 2012 and the frenzied celebrations with the United fans behind the goal showed just what it meant to him. The 28-year-old’s tail was up and he now ran at the Stoke defence before scuffing a shot wide.
Walters might have had an equaliser for Stoke, failing to make contact with Eric Pieters’ cross into the six-yard box and then seeing a deflected shot just clear David de Gea’s crossbar. That was as good as it got for Mark Hughes’ side as Ryan Shawcross limped off with an apparent groin injury and Evra applied the coup de grâce, collecting a pass from Young and curling a superb right-foot shot into the far corner.
Man of match Young.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee M Clattenburg (Co Durham).