Manchester United’s dominant display at the Britannia Stadium helped Sir Alex Ferguson’s side claim top spot in the Premier League for the first time this season. Goals from Dimitar Berbatov and John O’Shea were enough to see off the Potteries team, whose fans provided plenty of atmosphere on a day when the home side was as ineffective as United was good. But once again United was heavily indebted to the 35-year-old Ryan Giggs for providing the creativity to win the match in the closing stages.
United began brightly, creating a flurry of chances in the first ten minutes of the match. The pattern set in early, with the home side ready to ‘park the bus’, while allowing United’s players time and space. In particular the returning Paul Scholes was given room to spray passes long and short in search of an opening.
But while United dominated possession and territory, Ferguson’s outfit was unable to create enough clear openings in the opening forty-five. The clearest of which fell to Antonio Valencia, restored to the side after sitting out the Manchester derby. Beating former United trainee Ryan Shawcross, Valencia was able to draw Sorensen in the Stoke goal, before chipping tamely wide. The weaknesses in Valencia’s finishing, underscored here, is behind just seven goals in two years at Wigan Athletic.
Wayne Rooney then almost fashioned a goal with an acrobatic effort following Nani’s cross. The infuriating Portuguese winger also went close with a curling long range effort after cutting in from the right. Ronaldo’s heir-apparent saw plenty of the ball but continuously chose the wrong option. Shooting when better placed team-mates were available; trying to beat a man when a first time cross would have sufficed.
By the end of the half United had Stoke’s goal under siege, a pattern
which was to repeat for the rest of the match. On 55 minutes came the pivotal moment of the match, with Luis Nani being replaced by the effervescent Giggs. It took just five minutes for the Welshman to underline his quality, with a sublime run and pass across the six-yard area, allowing Berbatov to score with a tap-in.
Scholes, who could have seen red for the second time in as many matches after a handball on the edge of the United area, continued to dictate the tempo of the match. United dominated possession, robbing the home side of much of their usual bluster and reducing Tony Pullis’ men to hopeful long balls. Meat and drink to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, who had one of their most comfortable afternoons of the season.
O’Shea and Giggs then combined to complete the win. The Welshman’s in-swinging free-kick met by the Irishman’s forehead on his 350th appearance for United. O’Shea’s delight at scoring unsurprising as he hadn’t hit the net in over two years.
Ferguson was again effusive in his praise of Giggs. After the Welshman’s three-assist performance against City last weekend, the winger was the vital creative difference for United.
“Ryan is important. He made the goals. I felt his intelligence would give them a bit of bother on that side of the pitch,” he said after the match.
“Nani did pretty well but Ryan gives you something else. He has the intelligence to take up good positions. For the first goal he went on a lovely run behind their defence and the second was an excellent free-kick.”
If Ferguson was being generous to the Portuguese winger, then it was also a thinly veiled condemnation of Nani’s total inability to harness his considerable talent into an all-round package. More than two years into the former Sporting player’s stint at Old Trafford and Nani has hardly progressed.
“Giggsy’s experience of taking up different positions and taking advantage of any gaps proved crucial,” goalscorer O’Shea told the United official website.
“The great run he made for the first goal was him all over. The way he used his experience to get on the blind side of the defender was brilliant.
“I was really pleased to score especially against a team who are so strong on set pieces.
“It was a great ball in from Giggsy – I said to him I’d try and get across the ‘keeper – and thankfully I was able to knock it in.”
The authoritative win put United top of the table, following Chelsea’s surprise loss at Wigan Athletic. The reds have now won seven in a row after the defeat to Burnley at Turf Moor. And with three home games to come before the trip to Anfield in October, United has hit championship winning form far earlier in the season than is normal for Ferguson’s side.
“I wish we were saying this at the beginning of May. There’s a long way to go but it’s been a good day,” he said.
It certainly was.