Sunday, September 25, 2011

Stoked Up About Peter Walton

photo by charenton_via PhotoRee

Wayne Rooney rests his sore hamstring as Dimitar Berbatov is thrust into the limelight with his first start of the season at the Britannia on Saturday. Away to Stoke is always going to be considered one of the toughest games of the season, and the Bulgarian will need to be at the very top of his game if United are to repeat last season's late victory here. Berba is joined up top by Chicharito, and the visitors' attack will also feature Luis Nani and Ashley Young on the wings and Anderson and Fletcher in the middle of the park. David De Gea's defense comprises Antonio Valencia, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and fan favorite Phil Jones, and the Spaniard will face a stern test with Stoke's extra-large bodies and strong set piece play.

Rory Delap's first long throw of the afternoon leads to an early opportunity for the Potters, but it's a clear-as-day penalty committed by Jonathan Woodgate that really grabs the eye in the early going. Woodgate extends his arm to shove over a streaking Mexican missile, as Javier Hernandez breaks free on goal in the game's third minute, and it's an utter mystery as to why referee Peter Walton decides not to point immediately to the spot. Although it's clear from the play that Walton's vision is suffering today, Chicharito's leg and hip must be hurting even more as he's forced from the field of play after a stoppage of nearly three minutes.

Stoke's plan of attack on Saturday involves fouling early and often to begin the contest, bundling over not only over Hernandez, but also Jones, Evra, and Nani in quick succession.  It's a real rough and ready first ten minutes of the game, and as Chicharito limps off due to the lingering effects of Woodgate's shove, it's Michael Owen into the breach to repair the United offense.

The early boil must cause Tony Pulis to fear that Sir Alex may not invite him to share a bottle of post-game wine, as the contest seems to settle down a bit at this point.  Some of the game's early heat is removed and neither side creates much in the way of offensive chances.  Manchester United look a bit labored at the halfway point of the first half, and neither Nani nor Young have yet to make much of an impact on the day's action.  Not content to be denied any longer, though, it's at this point that Nani pops up from nowhere to play a quick one-two with Darren Fletcher, before cutting inside and through the vaunted Stoke central defense -- beating about half the team in the process -- and finishing expertly with his left foot to give United the lead.

Stoke doesn't succumb easily, and as if to prove the point they march straight back up the pitch before Andy Wilkinson's blast is miraculously tipped over the bar by United's number one Spaniard.  As if trying to offer the starkest possible contrast to De Gea's otherwordly form, Stoke 'keeper Asmir Begovic offers an entry into the  goalkeeper-blunder-of-the-season competition, and his candidacy is stopped only when Nani balloons the ball over the bar with the goal begging in front of him.

De Gea pulls another rabbit out of a hat just a short bit of time later, and it's two opportunities in about five minutes for De Gea to give the small but spirited away crowd 18 million reasons to love him. It's a tight and tense affair at the half, and if Nani's second effort had been on target, or if De Gea was not in such sparkling form, the scoreline could justifiably show United leading by 2-nil or down 2-1.

Darkness falls as the second half gets underway, with Stoke attacking the Boothen End of their pitch. It's a typically loud and obnoxious crowd that greets Peter Crouch's inaugural goal for Stoke as the Potters grab an equalizer off an early corner.  Two minutes later and it's Crouch again, the ball lobbed in straight over the top of an outstretched Rio Ferdinand, but it's De Gea to the rescue once more, denying the British Flamingo from virtual point blank range. Stoke have the bit between their teeth as they feed off the amped-up electricity of the home crowd, and United just have to hold on and settle in here.

It's a game without any rhythm or fluidity, a herky jerky contest playing out exactly the way Tony Pulis' men want it, and De Gea is forced into yet another fine save on a rocket of a free kick by Mark Wilson. Peter Walton intrudes his ugly mug once more into the contest, when he neglects to call a clear handball on Ryan Shawcross in the box.  Instead, Walton allows his equally incompetent linesman to bizarrely signal Michael Owen offside, when the diminutive scouser is completely uninvolved in the play after the ball hits Shawcross' arm.

Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs join the action, replacing the largely ineffective Berbatov and Young, and put in a final twenty minute shift to search for the traditional late winner.   The winning goal never looks likely during regulation time, and it's only as the clock hits "Fergie Time" that United look as if they may score.   Giggs misses what is United's best chance of the second half, side footing Nani's inch-perfect cross wide of the net, and Michael Owen is adjudged offside when picked out on a scoop pass by Anderson as the sand runs out of the hourglass.

In truth it's not a bad result for the visitors, especially with their top two strikers sidelined, and Sir Alex will likely be content with the point earned -- although also upset that the biased refereeing displayed by Walton likely took away any possibility of three points on the day.

This is farlieonfootie for September 25.

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