Wednesday, February 1, 2012

That Was Easy: Manchester United 2 - Stoke City 0

photo by NCinDCvia PhotoRee

It was Ben Amos to the front of the line last night for his Premier League debut, on an evening that ended up being much easier than first envisaged.  Greeted by the news of a David De Gea illness (I wonder if lack of confidence is catching? I believe it must be...) and an Anders Lindegaard knock, the United faitfhul were right to be slightly wary of facing a battle hardened Stoke City team at Old Trafford with only their third choice goaltender available for duty.  With the Potters currently lying eighth in the League table and playing a lineup with a decidedly attacking bent, the young 'keeper was given an assignment that few would relish, even for their inaugural League effort. 

But lo and behold, a strange thing happened on the way to a tough assignment: assisted on defense by veterans Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, and complimented by youngsters Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling, Amos handled the few difficult chances he saw with considerable aplomb and self assurance, as United overcame a determined Stoke defense with a couple of efforts from the penalty spot, and saw out an easy 2-nil victory to remain bang on Manchester City's heels heading into a crucial three game period.

Ji-Sung Park, Dimitar Berbatov and Chicharito also made rare starting appearances for the Reds, as United sought to bounce back from the weekend defeat at Anfield.  Once again, though, it was veteran midfielder Paul Scholes who conducted the orchestra and drove the United attack in the early going.  Sitting deep in the middle and pulling the strings, Scholes controlled the tempo of the game, as United sought to patiently find weaknesses in Stoke's defense. The Potter's gameplan, on the other hand, became evident with Jonathan Walters' first long-range bomb: shoot early and often to test the unproven 'keeper. With Scholes' positioning allowing Michael Carrick to play further upfront than is customary, Stoke had few opportunities in the game's opening minutes to further apply their strategy.

The Reds' attack built into a flurry of forays in and around the box, as the home side controlled 75% of the ball in the game's first 10 minutes. Although United also controlled more of the ball over the next ten minutes, as well, their possession was more of the prodding and probing variety than the dangerous brand of football that this United side is capable of at its attacking best.  Once again, it was Antonio Valencia who created the most dangerous of the opportunities, as the core of the United flow ran through Scholes and the Ecuadorian, the former just wide of target with a hard-hit laser, and the latter darting in crosses from the right-hand flank.

After thirty minutes, though, Tony Pulis had to be satisfied with the effort of his men, as the game reached the half hour mark with the scoreline unscathed; although United were indeed controlling the action and bossing midfield, the paucity of real chances for the home side was bound to please the Stoke boss man.  Meanwhile, despite the attack-minded lineup they fielded, Stoke seemed to forget its initial instincts, as they sat behind the ball in an attempt to pull of what no club in 41 games had done at Old Trafford: shut out the home side.

Carrick came close to breaking the deadlock shortly thereafter, put through on the side of goal by a fine Berbatov one-time pass, but the United midfielder's shot skittered through the goalmouth untouched. United increased the pressure and just as the belief in a goal was beginning to build throughout the crowd, Jermaine Pennant obliged by bringing down Ji-Sung Park, a move which sent Chicharito to the spot. The Mexican gave himself a boost by sending Stoke 'keeper Tomas Sorenson the wrong way to give the home side a deserved 1-nil lead heading into the half.  As if acknowledging that they would have to now go out and attack, Stoke City ventured out for the first time in quite a while in search of some long free kicks and a goal; none forthcoming, both teams headed off to the locker room in search of some warmth and a quick fifteen minutes of rest.

The second half picked up where the first left off, a fairly straight forward affair with United on the front foot and Stoke absorbing pressure.  The Reds looked as if they were seeking a more balanced attack in the second period, with Patrice Evra bombing down the left flank to provide some width on that side to match the attacking room available on the opposite. But when the breakthrough came, once again it was from the right: Antonio Valencia was handcuffed and hauled down by Walters near the 50 minute mark, and this time it was Dimitar Berbatov who strode to the spot. Different shooter, same result, as the Bulgarian tucked the ball just under Sorenson's diving arms to extend the lead to two. Again it was the Ecuadorian who carried the game most directly to Stoke, carving out room on the right hand flank, dashing in toward goal and all but sealing up the three points on the evening.

In the type of game the home side has played relatively few of this season, with a half hour left in the contest only two big questions remained: how large would the final margin be, and would Amos keep a clean sheet on his debut?  As if to offer a partial answer to the latter, Amos made a diving save on a ball that reached the goal -- one of the few times it had been threatened by Stoke all evening. If goalkeeper coach Eric Steele was scripting the type of game he wished for his rookie 'keeper to be greeted with, he couldn't have come up with a scenario much better than that which had unfolded through the first 70 minutes.

Patrice Evra looked personally aggrieved as he was hauled down in the box in an incident that looked at least as much a penalty as the two prior two, but seeing that Evra was a defensive player and not an attacking winger or forward, referee Mike Jones chose to willingly look the other way at the third clear Stoke infraction in the box on the evening.

It was the 72 minute mark when Paul Pogba followed Amos' example by making his own League debut, entering the game for Chicharito and providing the home crowd with a bit of a spark.  The young Frenchman showed some immediate class and self confidence in taking the ball for a spin down the right side of the pitch and firing in a couple of fine crosses and a deflected shot, as the United offense built to a crescendo in search of a third goal on the evening.

Although Berbatov nearly netted off yet another Valencia scything run and cross, it mattered little in the end. A relaxed Sir Alex could be seen leaving the stadium after the contest beaming as if he had just completed filming his first Staples commercial: That Was Easy.  2-nil to United, as the Reds go marching on....

This is farlieonfootie for February 1.

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