Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United are spot on as poor Stoke bear gifts

By Tim Rich

Manchester United 2-0 Stoke City: Steven Spielberg's first film was called Duel and was about a car driver, played by Dennis Weaver, who becomes convinced that a trucker is trying to kill him.

Each time he tries to accelerate away, he relaxes a little but then glances into his wing mirrors to see the big brown tanker, belching diesel smoke, blaring its horn and coming ever closer to running him off the road. This morning, Roberto Mancini will understand the feeling.

When news came through from Goodison Park that Darren Gibson had put Everton ahead, the Stretford End was more animated than it had been at any stage of a drab, predictable encounter, settled by two penalties. It seems astonishing but Manchester City and Manchester United are now separated only by the six goals Mancini's side scored here in October.

That the match was decided by two penalties will raise a forest of eyebrows outside the confines of Old Trafford, although Mike Jones might have awarded four. There was a first-half handball from Robert Huth and a foul on Patrice Evra that could have been punished by two more spot-kicks.

United were often insipid but Stoke again appeared overawed by the big stage. If you lumped together their appearances at Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, their most recent league win would have been at Highbury in 1981.

And yet, Tony Pulis had every right to fancy his chances. Injury and illness to Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea meant that 21-year-old Ben Amos was required to make his Premier League debut. The boy from Macclesfield has been with Manchester United since the age of 11 but has needed a reservoir of patience. It was 764 days between his first appearance for United, against Middlesbrough, and his second against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Both, like his last, the 2-1 defeat by Crystal Palace that had dragged an apology to his supporters from Sir Alex Ferguson, had been in the Carling Cup. Stoke decided to test him early but once a shot from Jonathan Walters had crashed into an advert for Mister Potato – the global snack partner of Manchester United – their resolve faded in familiar fashion.

The tannoys reminded Old Trafford endlessly that they were watching "the Barclays Premier League champions", which, amid all the analysis into why United have been so lacking in grandeur, is too often forgotten.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Muhammad Ali both turned 70 recently and this season Ferguson's United sides have resembled late-era Ali; often pressed against the ropes but surviving on experience, cunning and flashes of long-remembered skill.

Before United broke through on a cold often listless night, there were moments of the old brilliance. Paul Scholes met an awkward lay-off with impeccable technique, his foot right over the ball, sending it slamming into the advertising hoardings a couple of yards wide of Thomas Sorensen's post. There were also a couple of Dimitar Berbatov's sublime little touches, a turn and pass under pressure which sent through Antonio Valencia and another that set up Michael Carrick. Neither led to goals but both might well have done.

Nevertheless, this was not an electric night, epitomised by the empty seats that dotted the Stretford End, although when the breakthrough did arrive it was with a burst of controversy. There were seven minutes of the first half remaining when Jermaine Pennant challenged Park Ji-sung in the area. At first it seemed he had got the ball, although by making his tackle from behind he risked a penalty that Pulis greeted with both his hands on his hips.

When Javier Hernandez's cross struck Huth's arm a few minutes later, it seemed more of an obvious penalty.

United have made a habit of missing from the spot this season and in Wayne Rooney's continuing absence, it fell to Hernandez to take the penalty. Sorensen has a formidable record in these kinds of situations but the young Mexican sent the keeper the wrong way for his seventh goal of what has been a subdued season.

Five minutes after the restart, came the second penalty, this time taken by Berbatov after Valencia had gone down under pressure from Walters. United's winger punched the air when it was given which told its own story. The official verdict would have been a familiar one in this stadium: soft.

This time Sorensen chose right but the ball squeezed between his fingertips and the post. The result, however, was much the same. Manchester United were two goals up against a side that had not won at Old Trafford since Tommy Docherty was in the home dug-out. Realistically the game was over and the old chants swept around Old Trafford: "For the champions stand up".

Match facts

Substitutes: Manchester United Pogba 5 (Hernandez, 72). Stoke Jerome 5 (Crouch, 57), Fuller (Walters, 75), Delap (Palacios, 75).

Booked: Manchester United Scholes.

Stoke Wilkinson, Walters, Huth.

Man of the match Berbatov. Match rating 7/10.

Possession: Manchester United 60% Stoke 40%.

Attempts on target: Manchester United 7 Stoke 3.

Referee M Jones (Cheshire). Attendance 74,719.

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