Manchester United hung on to beat Stoke City 2-1 at Old Trafford and secure a fourth successive Premier League win for the first time in a year. With the scores tied after Steven Nzoni’s fine strike cancelled out Marouane Fellaini’s header, Juan Mata got the decisive goal just before the hour mark when his in-swinging free-kick missed everyone and found the corner of the net.
But at the final whistle United could certainly count themselves fortunate and Stoke feel mighty aggrieved. Although Marcos Rojo’s claims that he got a touch to Mata’s delivery looked ill-founded, the fact that he had made a definite attempt to get his head to the ball having been in an offside decision meant that the flag should have been raised. Having got in front, United then survived a series of injury-time scares thanks to two more brilliant saves in an ever-growing collection for David de Gea and a spectacular goal-line clearance by Ashley Young at the death.
While it wasn’t a convincing win then for Louis van Gaal’s side against a Stoke team that has now lost three matches in a row, it is one from which he can regardless take much encouragement. Simply put, it is a victory that it is hard to have seen United getting either earlier this season or for much of last. And it is a win that strengthens United’s hold on fourth position in the Premier League table and takes them to within one point of third-place Southampton, who travel to Arsenal on Wednesday.
It is a strong position given the struggles Van Gaal has encountered early on in his Old Trafford reign. Injuries have been a major part of those challenges and United were further weakened for the visit of Stoke by the unavailability of captain Wayne Rooney after he failed to recover from knocks suffered in the weekend win over Hull City. With Angel di Maria also missing, United hardly produced breathtaking free-flowing play but the solidity and resilience of the team has improved markedly.
Following on from an impressive cameo after replacing Di Maria on Saturday, Ander Herrera again made his presence felt as part of a solid midfield. The Spaniard should have scored when blazing a shot over after Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic had gifted the ball straight to Robin van Persie early on. But he soon produced a more telling contribution. In the 22nd minute, Herrera was found by Mata down the left and lofted in a fine cross with his weaker left foot that invited Fellaini to steam in and rise easily above Erik Pieters at the back post before heading down into the net. It was the Belgian’s second goal this season and continued his return to prominence and form following the disaster of his first season at Old Trafford.
It was unfortunate for him then, that it was he who was dispossessed as Stoke equalized six minutes before the break. Fellaini went down holding his neck after being robbed, while Bojan drifted forward toward the edge of the box. Chris Smalling, again solid in defense, stopped the progress of the former Barcelona youngster, but the ball rolled invitingly out for Nzonzi, who measured his angles before bending the ball away from the diving De Gea.
Lacking the intensity demanded by Van Gaal in the opening 45 minutes, Manchester United began the second with a real head of steam. Stoke clung on initially, but were undone by Mata’s free-kick from the right and the questionable decision of the referee’s assistant in the 59th minute.
It was a lead United should have built on to make the points safe. After a quiet first half, James Wilson, starting in place of Rooney and preferred over Radamel Falcao, showed flashes of his potential midway through the second period. Yet the 19-year-old’s best moment was also his most disappointing. Wilson looked full of promise when he skipped through to lead a two-on-one attack, but instead of teeing up Van Persie for a simple finish opted to go alone and then shot wide of the target. It looked unlikely to be a pivotal miss until Stoke applied some late pressure and former United striker Mame Biram Diouf was twice left wondering how he failed to find the net.