Manchester United notched up their fourth consecutive Premier League win in a row on Tuesday night with a ?-? victory over a limited Stoke City. In the absence of the injured Wayne Rooney and Angel di Maria, United never quite managed to attain any truly overwhelming attacking threat, yet encouraging, energetic performances from Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and the teenager James Wilson meant that they had too much for a Stoke side who came for a draw and almost grabbed it in the last few seconds of the game.
United once again set themselves out in a back four with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, wingers in fullbacks' clothing, given licence to advance down the flanks. Though the home side dominated the early exchanges of the match in midfield, it took some time for the first chance to arrive, and when it did is was nothing to do with any attacking effort. Robin van Persie intercepted a lazy pass from Asmir Begovic before squaring the ball to Herrera. With the goal at his mercy and without a defender to hassle him, the Spaniard placed his shot over the bar, before placing his head in his hands.
Fortunately for Herrera, he was able to find redemption a few minutes later. After working a yard of space on the left flank with Juan Mata, he sent a first-time cross booming high towards the far post. Marouane Fellaini is a big man stood on the ground; leaping, he was far too much for Erik Pieters. Catching the Stoke left back on his heels, the Belgian headed home for his first goal at Old Trafford.
After that, United continued to move the all around neatly, limiting Stoke to the occasional break and working a few decent crossing opportunities. Though Van Persie was largely anonymous, Wilson's willing running was causing a few concerns around the edges of the Stoke box, and the teenager should have had a penalty after half an hour. However, referee Jon Moss took the view that Geoff Cameron might as well be allowed to run through attackers if he couldn't be bothered going around.
United, though dominating possession, were failing to work themselves clear chances or to test Begovic. As such, the home side were always going to be vulnerable to a moment of excellence, even though the equaliser certainly wasn't deserved and arrived in peculiar circumstances. Fellaini challenged the lively Oussama Assadi in midfield for a bouncing ball, and though the Stoke player's foot never got higher than Fellaini's stomach, the Belgian went down clutching the back of his neck, with can only have been a bizarre muscular tweak. It was certainly no foul, and after Bojan's run into the box was smothered, the ball feel to Stephen Nzonzi in yards of untroubled greenery. He was able to set himself, before thumping the ball past the helpless De Gea.
United attempted to muster a bit of a flurry towards the end of the second half; indication, perhaps, that Van Gaal is just as free with his haircare implements as Alex Ferguson was. The best chance fell to the busy Fellaini -- his neck having untweaked itself -- and the midfielder could perhaps have done more when a misdirected shot fell to his feet on the right hand corner of the six-yard box. That said, he had only a moment to adjust and Begovic made a good save on the line.
The second half began in much the same vein: United dominant and busy without looking too penetrative or slick; Stoke happy to let things get a bit scrappy and look to spring a break. United's attack flickered without really threatening to catch fire, and the game was just threatening to go flat when on the hour, almost from nowhere, United took the lead again. Erik Pieters, struggling after sustaining a leg injury, blocked Antonio Valencia wide on the right. Mata lofted the freekick toward the far post and, though Marcos Rojo rose highest and strained his neck, the ball passed undiverted into the net.
With Stoke needing to find another equaliser, space began to appear all over the pitch, and United began to enjoy themselves a touch. The tireless Young and Valencia began to revel in their freedom, even if they couldn't quite find their crosses. James Wilson twice tricked himself into space beyond the defence: on the first occasion he couldn't quite find the finish, on the second he was hacked down by Steven Ireland. Even Chris Smalling went on a brief amble through a couple of tackles, though noted defensive stopper Bojan eventually stopped him in his tracks.
No third goal was forthcoming, however, and the late introduction of Peter Crouch and Marco Arnautovic set the blood pressure around Old Trafford creeping up just a touch. Then it went sky high in injury time, as Mame Biram Diouf somehow failed to score from two yards, twice. First, his header from a set piece drew a wonderful reflex save from David de Gea, then moments later a goalmouth scramble and a poked finish was met by a quite remarkable goalline clearance from Ashley Young. Video replay showed the ball was at least halfway over the line.
But United came through the brief flurry to claim a win that they just about deserved, and which keeps them in fourth place, one point behind their weekend opponents Southampton. Chances are, the high-flying Saints will pose a sterner test.
Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Young; Carrick; Herrera (Fletcher 86'), Fellaini; Mata (Januzaj 90'); Van Persie, J Wilson (Falcao 78')
Goals: Fellaini 21', Mata 59'
Stoke City: Begovic, Bardsley, Shawcross, Cameron, Pieters, M Wilson, Nzonzi, Ireland (Arnautovic 82'), Assaidi (Crouch 77'), Bojan, Diouf
Goals: Nzonzi 39'