Marouane Fellaini scores as Manchester United beat Stoke City 2-1
Another match, another former Man Utd legend in the dugout and another victory for the reds. If I didn’t know any better, I’d suggest that perhaps Louis van Gaal knows what he is doing after all.
Three days removed from a dominant performance against a lacklustre Hull City, United were back at Old Trafford with Mark Hughes replacing Steve Bruce as the ex-player-turned-manager who this time brought Stoke City to compete. This wasn’t the roll over and play dead performance of Saturday as the Potters gave a decent showing of themselves, but goals from Marouane Fellaini and Juan ‘Marcos Rojo’ Mata sealed the three points.
With four wins from the last four games, United are heading into Christmas with a decent run of games and momentum in the face of an injury apocalypse. Here are the talking points from tonight’s game.
Those who shine, shine bright…
Football has a funny habit of turning heroes into villains and, conversely, the shamed into superstars. Last season, Fellaini was a bumbling buffoon with silly hair and the dominance of a penguin. Tonight, the Belgian was in full flow as he bossed the midfield with interceptions, key creative passes and the bullet header that powered the reds into a 21st minute lead.
Ashley Young, another easy target for scorn and criticism, displayed fine form on the wing despite still playing on his unfavoured left side; his goal line clearance at the end of the game would have been a career-defining moment had David de Gea not defied all logic with his reaction save just moments before. Juan Mata showed some of the form that made his initial signing from Chelsea seem like a bargain, no matter how many times Rojo pointed at his chest to claim a goal he didn’t score. Even James Wilson worked hard and contributed some fine pace in running straight through Stoke’s defence before being collared off for Falcao near the end.
The biggest surprise of the night was reserved for Chris Smalling. After a disaster against the noisy neighbours last month, the defender covered himself in glory by keeping Stoke at bay for most of the game. His movement, clearances, headers and even attacking runs were more in line with what is expected from a defender at the highest level. His partnership with Rojo would be applauded at any mid-table club but it will be nice to see Phil Jones or Paddy McNair return soon. If Smalling can put a run of form together though, there’s no reason why he couldn’t stake a claim for a first team position.
…but those who fall, fall hard.
How long can Van Gaal persevere with Robin van Persie? Tonight more than any I’ve seen in recent times, the Dutch striker felt completely isolated and all the more frustrated for it. Several times during the course of the match, RvP was throwing his arms up in the air when Wilson took shots or Mata didn’t pass early enough to match his runs.
The odd goal can always change perceptions but, with United as a team beginning to show signs of believing in Van Gaal’s philosophies, it feels more and more like Van Persie is the odd one out. The reds can score with or without him, seen against Arsenal when Rooney linked with Di Maria and cut the Dutchman out completely.
Times are changing and there is an ever-decreasing need for RvP in the grand scheme of things. For someone so good when utilised as the lone ranger up top, thoughts have to be given as to whether the manager will ditch his man for a fully fit Falcao or even the young James Wilson (who also suffered from isolation but showed signs of promise near the end).
The whole is starting to become greater than the sum of its parts. That may be good for United, but it could spell the end of the road for poor old Robin.
Not a vintage display, but Old Trafford is becoming a fortress again.
Don’t kid yourselves; this wasn’t the Manchester United we’ve all been waiting for. No matter what result came out in the end, this was a makeshift team who made a sub-par start: lousy pass after lousy pass, Stoke enjoying possession without threat, and no real joy going forward except for a comically bad pass from Begovic to RvP: how lucky for Stoke that Herrera skied the resulting opportunity.
That being said, United improved as the game wore on and are now undefeated at Old Trafford in eight games, sitting semi-comfortably in the coveted fourth position of the Premier League. The demolition derbies of old are yet to reappear but lower table teams can no longer afford the potential for an upset. All of a sudden, coming to Manchester seems a scary proposition again.
As Michael Carrick (who yet again was a silent hero in midfield) said after the Hull game, “that’s the sort of standard we want to be at. Dominating teams and winning. We’ve done it in the past but the past is the past. We need to do it again. And hopefully as time goes on we can carry on like this and that fear factor will creep back.”
If the results keep coming, it may not creep so much as bang down the doors and triumphantly take its rightful place back in front of the Stretford End.
Fourth is good, but third is even better
Positions 2-5 are all one point away from each other, with United sitting fourth on 25 points. Depending on the outcome between Arsenal and Southampton, the weekend trip to St. Mary’s Stadium could elevate us into third place, hovering precariously behind City in second.
Jose Mourinho seems a lock to run away with the league trophy this season but Champions League places are the real goal and United can do far worse than end the first half of the season in the mix of things. With the expected drop in form of Southampton and West Ham (although the latter may seem further away than anyone would expect), United could really pull away from the Liverpools and Arsenals below them.
If everything falls into place as promised, if Van Gaal’s promise of taking a few months before the wheels begin turning in our favour is proven true, the battle for second place could heat up. And what if Chelsea drop more points against weaker opposition? Could it be the impossible dream made possible yet again?
If things continue to get better, it’s anything but impossible.