Manchester United reverted to type as they went down 2-1 to Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, with any momentum and morale generated in last week's victory over Cardiff rendered pointless.
There were certainly mitigating circumstances in the loss, with both starting centre-backs Jonny Evans and Phil Jones substituted in the first half, leading to Michael Carrick dropping into defence and Tom Cleverley partnering Wayne Rooney in an extremely uncomfortable midfield pivot for the entire second half.
Even so, there's no denying United just weren't good enough for large chunks of the game. Positive sparks from Robin van Persie and Juan Mata in the opening exchanges became increasingly few and far between, with the midfield partnership of Carrick and Cleverley unable to retain possession for any real length of time.
The front four looked promising when on the ball, but they just didn't see enough of it. Ashley Young's insistence on bombarding the Stoke defence with crosses didn't help either. Save for a low Wayne Rooney shot which flashed just wide early on, United created very little in a scrappy first half.
Stoke's opener came in very fortuitous circumstances late in the opening 45, with a Charlie Adam free-kick taking a massive deflection of Carrick and beyond David de Gea.
Fortunately United responded well and drew level just moments after the restart, with Mata drifting inside off his nominal starting position on the right to thread an assist through for van Persie. Alas, stubborn Stoke refused to lie down.
Adam popped up to lash in a wondergoal within five minutes, with the Reds sucker-punched for a second time.
This time, they had no response.
It wasn't for a lack of trying, with Rooney doing a decent job at dictating the match from deep -- if at times being a little overambitious with his passing -- and Mata helping to link play by drifting across the attacking midfield band. Regularly United managed to get in behind the Stoke full-backs, only to waste the opportunity with a poor pass into the box. Unlike usual, it was finishing -- rather than creating -- chances which was the problem.
The makeshift centre-back pairing of Smalling and Carrick was unconvincing, and unsurprisingly United paid the defensive price of having Cleverley as their only central midfielder. Stoke created several opportunities on the counter, though some good fortune and even better goalkeeping from de Gea kept them at bay.
Despite seven minutes of stoppage time and an ever-increasing dominance, United couldn't find the net a second time. Moyes made the bizarre decision of substituting van Persie -- perhaps the only United player who looked comfortable against the Potters' physical, abrasive approach -- for an off-form Javier Hernández, which couldn't have helped. On the bench, Adnan Januzaj squeaked in anguish.
United's final opportunity was a piece of individual magic from Rooney, whose free-kick from the edge of the area cracked off the Stoke post in the dying moments of the game. Despite seven minutes of stoppage time, Stoke withstood the barrage, and sent United right back to square one. Let's just hope the injuries to Evans and Jones aren't too serious.
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