Monday, April 15, 2013

Marching On: Manchester United 2 - Stoke City 0

USS Nassau Sailors march in formation during ships decommissioning ceremony.
Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery on Flickr

Manchester United took another giant step in their inexorable march toward the 2013 Premier League title, emerging from their Sunday trip to the Britannia Stadium as convincing 2-0 winners over Stoke City. Although a trip to the Potters' grounds has caused many teams to break into a cold sweat in the past, the home side's poor form -- collecting the fewest points in the League since New Year's Day -- meant that United had little to fear from a toothless effort on a blustery day in Stoke.   Michael Carrick scored early and Robin Van Persie broke his two month goal drought late in the contest to momentarily stretch the lead at the top of the table back to 15 points over Manchester City.

Encouraging signs were evident from the beginning for the Reds, who scored on their first attempt of the game, as Michael Carrick toe-poked a failed clearance past Asmir Begovic's outstretched arm and into the net for a 1-nil lead less than five minutes in.  It was another set piece goal in a season full of them for the away side, and one that compounded Stoke's considerable woes: Fortress Britannia is in the process of being transformed into a stronghold in name only, as the home side fall closer and closer to the relegation zone.

The home crowd waited until the ten minute mark to begin showing their displeasure, although it was unclear if they were jeering their own side's poor showing, or United's ability to keep possession for minutes at a time, the ball pinging back and forth and side to side through the away team's lineup.

Events finally veered back toward normality near the twenty minute mark, as Ryan Shotton's long throw in and Robert Huth's header in the box served as stark reminders of the home side's robust challenges and intended gameplan. The physicality seemed to drag United down into the muck and mire, as the brilliant passing display that graced the first 20 minutes of action was a distant memory as the clock hit 30 minutes.

The teams took turns trading fouls before the first bandage came out, an event surprising at the Britannia only in that it appeared on the head of a Stoke player, Andy Wilkinson. By the time first half injury time was blown dead, Stoke had managed to morph into a team of vampires, sucking all the life out of the game and dragging the visitors down to their subterranean lair.

Robin Van Persie's recent goal mouth struggles continued early in the second half, the Dutchman slotted through on goal by Javier Hernandez, but his sidefooted effort found only the outside of the net. Meanwhile, Stoke's efforts yielded little success, as well: it was an hour in before Charlie Adam offered United goalkeeper David De Gea anything more than the most gratuitous of tests.

The now-unbandaged Wilkinson altered the arc of the game when he tripped Van Persie in the box, the Stoke defender offering no complaint as the referee pointed to the spot. Breaths on the visitors' sideline were suspended until the Dutchman steered the ball past Begovic, and the massive relief from both RVP and his manager was evident in the post goal hug which topped off the celebration.

The second goal brought the crowd and the home side back to momentary life, vampire status suspended, as Shotton tested De Gea with a tame side-footed effort. Not even the introduction of proven goal hounds Michael Owen and Peter Crouch for Stoke City, however, nor the swap of Danny Welbeck for Chicharito, could change the inevitable as the teams traded opportunities in the final 14 minutes.

This is farlieonfootie for April 15.

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