Manchester United took another step to achieving a remarkable 20th league title with victory over a toothless Stoke, whose recent performances have left them perilously close to the drop zone.
Tony Pulis’ side have carved themselves a place in the Premier League on the back of a philosophy that relies heavily on physicality, relentless pressing and capitalisation of set-piece opportunities, but against Manchester United they were bereft of everything that has made them such a difficult team to beat in the past. They gave the champions-elect far too much time on the ball and Ferguson’s men simply played their way through and around the hapless Potters.
Michael Carrick’s prominence in this current United set-up has been highlighted repeatedly throughout the season and against Stoke he proved exactly why he is being regarded as one of the club’s most important and diligent footballers. Not only did he stab home his first league goal of the season after a mere three minutes, he controlled the tempo of the game alongside Wayne Rooney, and was pivotal in transitioning the side from defence to attack. He was typically calm in possession and he and Rooney stroked the ball about the pitch, engaging in pleasing one-touch, ground-level passing that Stoke simply couldn’t deal with: they stood off too much and were duly punished.
With Rooney occupying the central midfield berth with Carrick, the latter would usually be relied upon to protect the back four, sweeping up errant balls, closing down Stoke’s midfielders and handing over possession to the likes of Kagawa, Rooney and Van Persie higher up the field. However, such was the lack of urgency from Stoke that Carrick was allowed all the time in the world to orchestrate United’s attacks, and through him they counter-attacked frequently, none more so obvious that for the penalty when United calmly dealt with a Stoke attack and covered the length of the pitch in six crisp passes.
At the same time Carrick has been drawing plaudits for his highly consistent performances at the heart of the United midfield, Robin van Persie has made fans sweat on account of his extended goal draught which he finally ended from the penalty spot against Stoke. He dispatched an absolute gem of a penalty into the bottom left-hand corner, before wheeling off in a manner of celebrating usually reserved for FA Cup final goals.
“He nearly killed me,” Ferguson joked afterwards, having been enveloped in a bear-hug from his elated Dutch striker. For United fans, Van Persie’s return to goal-scoring ways could not have come at a more useful time: with defeats against City and Chelsea in their last two games, respectively cutting their Premier League lead to 12 points and sealing their exit from the FA Cup, United have been in desperate need for goals from their leading frontman. Although the club looks set to record that 20th title, they have to contend with Arsenal and Chelsea in the run-in, and if Van Persie has indeed rediscovered his lethal touch in front of goal, United fans will feel a lot more comfortable going into those games.
Rooney looked comfortable in the central midfield role, albeit against a side that afforded him so much time he could almost have played at walking pace, allowing Hernandez to partner Van Persie up front. Although the little Mexican didn’t get on the scoresheet, the run-out will do him good, and his constant movement and pace were a handful for Stoke defenders to cope with.
The fixture salvaged a little pride for the beleaguered Manchester United fan, who have seen talk of the treble evaporate in recent weeks, and reinforces the likelihood of the Premier League trophy returning to Old Trafford. City can boast about another win over their arch rivals - and boast they did, for United fans were criminally silent during the 2-1 defeat - but it seems the Red Devils are inching steadily closer to the finish line.
As for Stoke, a side that are usually ensconced safely in mid-table by this part of the season, they are without a Premier League win in seven matches and find themselves looking down rather than up. With Aston Villa and Wigan registering wins in their last few matches, and Sunderland grabbing a vital three points against Newcastle, the Potters need to ensure they collect points from the upcoming QPR and Norwich games to help ensure their survival in England’s top division.