Stoke City dealt Manchester United a major blow in their efforts to gain a spot in next season’s Champions League with a Charlie Adam double giving the Potters a 2-1 win at the Britannia Stadium.
In ferocious wind, the two sides produced a contest that was frantic in tempo, but often lacking in quality, something also not helped by four players being forced off with injuries in the course of the 90 minutes. Ultimately, it was the hosts who dealt with the inclement conditions the better to grab a vital win that moves them out of the Premier League relegation zone.
There was plenty of fortune about the opening goal late in the first half as Adam’s long-range free-kick took a pivotal deflection off of Michael Carrick. United responded right after half-time with Juan Mata delightfully setting up Robin van Persie to get his second goal in as many games since his return from injury. But it was Stoke, despite their deficiency in possession, who produced a goal good enough to win any game when Adam drove in a sensational strike.
It was a bad day all round for Manchester United, who began it with such optimism as new signing Mata lined up alongside Van Persie and Wayne Rooney for the first time in a trio expected to lead their side into the top four. But injuries to Jonny Evans and Phil Jones in the opening 45 minutes meant a reshuffle to the side and Rooney deployed for much of the match in the middle of midfield. Other than the goal, there was precious few quality contributions from the trio. When a Rooney free-kick was brilliantly touched onto the post by Asmir Begovic in injury time, United’s last chance had gone. While United can certainly blame misfortune on the day, it is a mitigating factor that has been offered far too often this campaign.
It means that United have now lost an extraordinary eight league games already this season. If their long pined for revival is to come, it may well now arrive too late to garner United a spot among Europe’s elite -- something which has been taken for granted for as long as many of the club’s fans can remember. If Liverpool were to beat West Brom on Sunday, then Untied would find themselves nine points behind their fierce rivals in the battle for the top four, with just 14 matches remaining.
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Coming into the match following three defeats in a row, having just dropped into the drop zone as a result of West Ham’s win earlier in the day and after missing out on two deadline-day signings on Friday, things did not augur well for Stoke. Yet, perhaps helped by the neutralizing effects of the conditions, Stoke looked up for the challenge against the champions from the off. Jonathan Walters threatened with a series of crosses from the right in the early going, with a combination of the wind and poor execution just seeing them failing to find the angular target of Peter Crouch.
It was at the other end where the first clear chance of the match arrived. Rooney, making his first start in a month, will have been disappointed that he failed to hit the target with a volley at the near post. The miss came just moments after another cross might have led to a penalty for Marc Wilson’s challenge on Van Persie.
Still, United were struggling to get any quality passing going and with 38 minutes gone came a goal befitting of what went before it. It looked mightily ambitious when Adam lined up to strike a free-kick at goal into the wind from fully 35 yards. His effort would likely have led to a comfortable save for David de Gea, but instead it struck the knee of Carrick, who neither committed to blocking nor getting out of the way of the ball, and left the United keeper stranded as it bounced into the net.
United’s afternoon was about to get even worse. Having already lost Evans to injury early on, they were forced into a far more dramatic reshuffle when another center-back, Jones, collided with Walters and then banged his head nastily on the turf as he fell. Moyes’ alteration was certainly a positive one, with Danny Welbeck coming on, Rooney dropped back into midfield and Michael Carrick became a makeshift central defender.
Initially the changes did no harm, with United beginning he second half in ideal fashion and getting back on level terms less than two minutes after the restart. It came as a result of a woeful attempt to clear a long ball by Wilson, but what followed was a snapshot of what Moyes doubtless hoped Mata’s arrival would bring to his team. The Spaniard pounced on the error with a perfectly cushioned through ball into the path of Van Persie, who, without fuss, curled a shot expertly into the corner of the net.
But the visitors’ parity was to last just five minutes as Adam struck again, this time with an effort that required no assistance. From Walters’ knock to the edge of the box, Marko Arnatutovic made a complete hash of his effort but inadvertently stopped the ball ideally into the path of Adam arriving behind him and the midfielder crashed an unstoppable effort into the top corner.
Arnautovic missed another opportunity minutes later when he failed to capitalize on an error from Chris Smalling. Substitute Oussama Assaidi, scorer of a memorable winner against Chelsea, threatened to do likewise after coming onto the pitch, but this time lacked decisiveness when breaking through on goal.
United applied pressure late on, but there was to be no repeat of the two late goals that saw them beat the same opponents, 3-2, at Old Trafford earlier in the season. When Begovic got fingertips to Rooney’s free-kick and then Tom Cleverley somehow cleared the cross bar from his follow up, the game was up. Stoke had their first tin over Manchester United in 30 years to incredibly move into 11th place, bizarrely just four places behind the champions in a season that continues to surprise.