First Points Dropped In Hard-Fought Draw: Stoke City 1 United 1

A gritty performance from Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium saw Manchester United drop their first points of the season in a hard-fought encounter.

United were dealt two blows before the match even started, which in all honesty made life a hard game on paper look even more of a tough prospect. First news broke around lunch-time that Wayne Rooney had not even travelled with the squad after picking up a hamstring injury in training.

If that wasn’t bad enough, during the warm-up Jonny Evans who was going to be partnering Rio Ferdinand in the heart of United’s defence broke down in the warm-up meaning Phil Jones moved into the centre, with Antonio Valencia coming into the starting line-up at the Northern Irishman’s expense, slotting in at right back.

Unsurprisingly it took Stoke’s Rory Delap two minutes before he had his first throw-in. David De Gea came out to get it, but couldn’t with Valencia clearing much to the annoyance of the home side’s crowd.

Within a minute United felt that they should have won a penalty when Javier Hernandez was fouled inside the area by Jonathan Woodgate after being picked out by a neat ball in midfield by Darren Fletcher. The Mexican did well to control the ball under pressure and just as he was about to tuck the ball past Asmer Begovic in goal was fouled by the former Real Madrid centre-half.

It was a clear penalty but referee Walton failed to give it and things were made worse for Sir Alex Ferguson when it became apparent that Chicharito would be unable to continue after coming of worse after colliding with the Potters keeper, going off with a suspected dead leg. Michael Owen came on to make his first league appearance of the season.

Both sides were now beginning to threaten with Stoke predictably from throw-ins and set pieces. Peter Crouch as ever was causing problems and despite doing well to time a header from a Matthew Etherington cross wide, he had frustratingly fouled Phil Jones putting his arms on the young defender’s shoulders in doing so.

Dimitar Berbatov was making his first start of the season and he almost scored from an Anderson corner after edging away from his marker and ex-Spurs team-mate Woodgate. It wasn’t an easy chance but one the Bulgarian would have wanted to take in order to cement his place back in the starting line-up.

Shortly after that, Stoke avoided having a man sent off for the second time. This challenge though was worse than Woodgate’s as Glen Whelan simply lunged in on Patrice Evra by the by-line with Walton only booking the Irish international much to the disgust of Ferguson and United’s travelling supporters.

United took the lead on 26 minutes thanks to a wonderful goal by arguably their most consistent player over the last 18 months; Nani. A neat one-two between Nani and Darren Fletcher enabled the Portuguese winger to break into the area past Jonathan Walters and Glen Whelan. He swerved past Woodgate before drilling in a low left-footed drive past Begovic and into the net. It was some goal.

Within a minute of going behind, Stoke could have equalised. A stunning drive from local-lad Andy Wilkinson from the edge of the box was tipped onto the bar by a tremendous reflex save by De Gea.

Nani then should have had a second but couldn’t keep down an effort inside the area after Ashley Young had caused Begovic problems after a poor back-pass by his captain Ryan Shawcross. It was a chance given the form the winger is in, that he would have expected to have taken.

Ten minutes before the interval De Gea made another fantastic save to deny a fierce Walters shot that looked destined for the bottom corner. Who was it that said he wasn’t a good shot-stopper?

After the restart Stoke came out and after a spell of pressure equalised though the gangly Crouch who timed his run into the six-yard box perfectly between Jones and Ferdinand from an Ehterington corner to head the ball home. It was the England striker’s first goal for his new which made him one of only six players in the Premier League to score for six different clubs.

Crouch in all fairness should have had a second moments later when he was picked out at the back post by Jermaine Pennant. After evading Ferdinand, the big striker looked all but certain to bury the ball home, but De Gea bravely blocked the goal-bound effort out for a corner.

Marc Wilson brought out a smart save from De Gea with a powerful free-kick from the edge of the box, which was won after Valenica was adjudged to have left a high-foot on Walters who gratefully brought the foul.

With 20 minutes left on the clock, United felt that they were denied another clear-cut penalty. After Young saw a shot saved by Begovic following good play by Anderson and Fletcher, the ball came out to Evra on the edge of the box whose shot hit the outstretched arm of Shawcross.

The linesman’s flag went up immediately but it quickly became clear that the official hadn’t flagged for the handball but for Owen being in an offside position, which he was. But the striker hadn’t touched the ball, making the decision strange to say the least and showed that the officials even in 2011 do not understand the current offside rules. Mind-boggling isn’t it?

Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs were brought on to freshen United up but failed to get too much time on the ball. After Crouch had blazed a shot wide at the back-post, Giggs somehow fired a close-range effort wide of the near post deep into time added-on following a ball in from Nani.

As the full-time whistle sounded, both managers were probably happy with a point each, but United can certainly feel aggrieved that key decisions went against them. However this could prove to be a good point come May and not many sides will turnover Stoke in their own backyard. It’s a fixture best to get out of the way early on.

United: De Gea, Evra, Ferdinand, Jones, Valencia, Young (Giggs), Anderson, Fletcher, Nani, Hernandez (Owen), Berbatov (Wellbeck).

Star Man

Despite excellent performances by the returning Antonio Valencia and Darren Fletcher and goalscorer Nani, there’s no doubt that David De Gea proved that he can handle a tough away encounter in England. Despite being firmly on his line for Stoke’s equaliser, United’s Spanish keeper produced four saves that helped the side preserve their unbeaten start to the season. He is looking more assured by the game and is learning from his experiences all the time.

By Adam Dennehey  @ADennehey87