A dominant display from the Reds coupled with goals from Dimitar Berbatov and John O’Shea secured an impressive 2-0 victory over Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium, but the star of the show once again was Ryan Giggs.
Having run rings round Manchester City’s defence last time out setting up three of United’s four goals in the dramatic derby win, the club’s record appearance-maker came off the bench to inspire the Reds to a seventh straight victory in all competitions with two more vital assists.
Stoke offered little in attack and simply couldn’t cope with United’s Welsh wonder who, five minutes after entering the fray, crossed for Berbatov to tap home, before curling a free-kick onto the head of O’Shea who flicked home United’s second.
Sir Alex Ferguson made ten changes to the side that overcame Wolves in midweek with Nani the only survivor from the Carling Cup third round tie. And the Portuguese winger was heavily involved in United’s early attacks. Just three minutes in, his deflected cross fell to Wayne Rooney whose instinctive overhead kick flew over the bar.
The United pair combined well four minutes later from a short corner with Nani sending a low curling effort just wide of Thomas Sorensen’s left-hand post.
Former Reds’ defender Ryan Shawcross breathed a sigh of relief 60 seconds later when he lost out in a challenge with Antonio Valencia allowing the Ecuadorian a free run on goal. Despite having Rooney alongside him, the winger opted to shoot himself with the opportunity to open his United account too good to pass up. Unfortunately he clipped the ball wide of the far post.
The visitors were dominating possession with Paul Scholes pulling the strings in midfield, Rooney as busy and as bright as ever and Valencia and Nani seeing plenty of the ball leaving the Premier League’s loudest fans somewhat subdued. The Potters’ faithful raised the decibel level on 13 minutes though when Liam Lawrence ran clear of Patrice Evra down the right, but thankfully his cross-cum-shot did not trouble Ben Foster.
Soon after United broke forward at pace from a Stoke corner with Rooney finding Nani down the right, but the Portuguese international wasted the opportunity, blasting over when he could have simply rolled the ball back into Rooney’s path on the edge of the box.
Nani did hit the target a minute before the break, but Sorensen was on hand to brilliantly punch his curling effort clear.
United carried on where they left off after the restart possession-wise, although Stoke seemed a little more ambitious in attack. Thankfully, Foster and his defence were alert to any danger and dealt comfortably with any high balls into the area.
The Reds were still struggling to find a way through at the other end, but the introduction of Ryan Giggs, for Nani on 57 minutes, proved pivotal and ultimately led to the breakthrough.
A superb threaded pass from Darren Fletcher into the path of Giggs, who had sprinted into the area from the left, was followed by a pinpoint low cross from the Welshman giving Dimitar Berbatov the simple task of slotting home from three yards in the 62nd minute. It was the Bulgarian’s second goal of the season and he was the first to acknowledge yet another fine assist from Giggs.
The Reds were lucky not to go down to ten men soon after when Scholes was penalised for handball. Having already been shown a yellow card for a late tackle on Lawrence earlier in the half the midfielder breathed a sigh of relief when referee Howard Webb opted not to produce another.
Giggs found himself through on goal after a long ball forward but Sorensen did well to put him off and his effort sailed wide.
The United veteran turned provider once more on 77 minutes when he swung in a free-kick from the right wing. John O’Shea, making his 350th appearance, rose to meet the fine cross and sent a fine header into the top corner to put 2-0 ahead.
Three minutes later a delicious clipped pass from Scholes found Giggs in acres of space in the area, but despite great control to kill the ball with his first touch, the midfielder’s second touch wasn’t quite as pinpoint as he scooped the ball over the bar.
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