Manchester United’s revival under Louis van Gaal continued last night with a 2-1 victory over Stoke City, which moved them back into the Champions League spots.
The victory wasn’t without its dramas and United needed late heroics from David de Gea (once again) and Ashley Young to secure all three points.
In defeating Stoke, United equalled their record for most consecutive league wins since Sir Alex Ferguson retired (4 under David Moyes), but more encouraging for their fans is that United are boasting a far superior home record (W6, D1, L1) compared to this time last year (W3, D2, L3).
Old Trafford is starting to become the fortress that it once was – results wise at the very least – as United are unbeaten at home since the opening day. Last season, Old Trafford was not a happy place for United, as they lost seven home games throughout the season, which would have been unthinkable under Ferguson.
United were again forced to field a very makeshift back-line after being ravaged by injuries – Marcos Rojo partnered the much improved Chris Smalling at centre-back, who were flanked by midfielders Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. With injuries to Rafael, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Luke Shaw, United have had to cope with a weakened defence, but reinforcements will surely arrive in January to help to solve the issue.
Manchester United took the lead after 20 minutes, when Ander Herrera’s cross from the left was met by a fantastic header from the resurgent Marouane Fellaini for his first Old Trafford goal. It was the type of powerful far post leap that United fans have been waiting to see from the big Belgian.
The Potters pulled it back just before half-time. Steven N’Zonzi drove home from 20-yards with the outside of his boot, which left David de Gea with no chance.
The winning goal was a contentious point, not only from a refereeing point of view, but with regards to who scored it. Juan Mata delivered a free-kick from the right, which at first look seemed to drift over everyone into the far corner. However, Marcos Rojo celebrated the goal, claiming that he had the final touch. On the replay, it appears that he was right, but he was also stood in an offside position when the ball was delivered. Although, there wasn’t much of an appeal from the Stoke defenders.
In a game of few chances for the home side, James Wilson had a fantastic opportunity to open his goalscoring account for the season. The academy product, who celebrated his 19th birthday on Sunday, skipped past two defenders, but despite Asmir Begovic appearing beaten, his right-footed shot only found the side netting.
Stoke’s best period came in the final five minutes, and they could have had two goals and probably should have. Both chances fell to former United man Mame Biram Diouf, who was visibly distraught at his failure to capitalise.
The first was kept out by another fantastic save by De Gea. Diouf rose to meet a set piece, but was denied a goal by a fantastic reflex save. Shortly after, Marko Arnautovic saw his shot saved by De Gea, but the rebound fell to Diouf, who unluckily saw his effort cleared off of the line by Ashley Young.
Despite the win, Louis van Gaal will have his frustrations. Manchester United dominated the ball, keeping nearly 65% of the possession, but failed to create enough meaningful chances to put the game to bed. Obviously, the absences of Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria, both out through injury, contributed to that. United appeared desperate for that added guile in the final third of the pitch to carve open a very well-drilled Stoke City defence.
Van Gaal said in his post-match press conference, “It was not our best performance. We were not aggressive enough in the first-half, we didn’t keep our position on the pitch. I was not pleased at half-time – and I told them (the players). The second-half was better, we created more chances but we need to score more goals.
“Then Peter Crouch comes on, you know the long balls are coming and it is always difficult. But I’m pleased we held this result. The last few moments were not necessary, but it is always like that. We have struggled until the end in the Premier League. It is common.
“I’m happy with the result. Tomorrow we have a Christmas party and it’s important we enjoy that.”
Next up for United is a trip to Southampton on Monday night, which will be a test for both sides. If results between now and then go in their favour, United may well find themselves up to third in the table come the final whistle.