Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United clear at top after yet another so-so display

Manchester United 2 Stoke City 1: Manchester United extended their unbeaten run to 20 matches this season and opened up a three point lead over nearest challengers Manchester City and Arsenal thanks to victory over Stoke at Old Trafford.

Yet even two excellent goals from Javier Hernandez and Nani left many feeling underwhelmed by yet another unremarkable display by the Red Devils

Not that Ferguson is bothered. He feels the best answer is for United to carry on as they are.

“We are an easy target for that kind of thing,” he said.

“But we just have to dismiss it and concentrate on our ambitions — and that is to win the league.”

Opposite number Tony Pulis offered a more expansive summary after watching his team be undone by the same scoreline for the second time this season, on each occasion leaving the Stoke boss with a feeling of “what if”.

“They know how to win,” he said. “It is a mentality that runs through the club.

“You can get used to winning and used to losing but this is almost something ingrained.

“It gives them that edge and will stand them in good stead this season because they will have a run when things don't go so well.”

No one could quibble about the quality of United's goals.

Hernandez struck for the ninth time in his debut campaign, meeting Nani's low cross with a deft back-flick.

Then, after Dean Whitehead had nodded home a shock leveller five minutes into the second period, Nani clinched the points, curling home in sublime fashion after the Portugal winger had been given too much time to turn on the edge of the area.

From Hernandez in particular, it was the perfect response after the Mexican was given his chance whilst Wayne Rooney rests the ankle injury that he suffered at West Brom on Saturday.

“Of course it gives me a problem when Wayne is fit,” said Ferguson.

“But that is the kind of problem you want. Over the years, the strikers I have had have always given me that problem.

“That is Chico's job. And as long as he keeps putting the ball in the net, he is giving me those problems.”

Ferguson is hopeful of having two of Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar available for the FA Cup tie with Liverpool on Sunday.

The England skipper should be amongst them given he claimed to have been rested on his Twitter page prior to last night’s kick-off.

However, his replacement, Chris Smalling, earned warm praise from Ferguson on his first Premier League start.

“You have to have faith and trust in the players,” said Ferguson.

“They have earned that trust. I see them every day in training and in the games they have played in. They have never let me down.

“And Chris Smalling was excellent. At 20 years of age he is doing very well.

“I am pleased with his improvement. He is certainly the future of the club.”

The win took United's tally to 19 points out of the last 21.

Yet rarely can such impressive and imposing statistics be greeted with such an underwhelming response, which is possibly the strangest aspect of a very strange season, which Hernandez at least has plenty of reason to enjoy.

When Hernandez was considering the delights that awaited in his first season at United, it is fair to assume Stoke would not have been top of his list.

But long after he has returned to Mexico, he will remember his meetings with the men from the Potteries.

In October it was that jaw-dropping back header, which even a renowned exponent such as Sky TV pundit Andy Gray admitted he would have struggled to emulate in his heyday.

Last night's effort — his ninth goal of the season and his second in four days — was no less audacious.

The overwhelming feeling at half-time was of the hosts once again scraping by without really exuding any of the class expected.

And five minutes after the restart they were pegged back as Whitehead nipped between Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra to nod home Tuncay's cross.

It was the centre-piece of a period of genuine Stoke pressure and brought the Potteries outfit their first Old Trafford goal since 1980. But thanks to Nani, it turned out to be worthless.

Belfast Telegraph


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