Hernandez 27, Nani 62
STOKE CITY 1
With key players missing in important areas, Manchester United put in a disjointed performance which saw them extend their lead at the top of the Premier League.
One area the United fans were focusing on before the game was the newly reunited strike partnership of Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez. Following a strong start to the season, Hernandez was seemingly losing his way slightly before his winner at West Brom on New Year’s Day; so much of the focus was placed on the Mexican to see if he could recapture the form shown in the reverse of this fixture earlier in the season.
Chicharito did not disappoint, as from the off his movement and pace caused problems for the Stoke back line. He was continually on the move, making diagonal runs in between the centre-halves, always looking for the space in behind the defenders and was a constant threat. The manner in which he took his goal also showed supreme striking capabilities. The finish may have been sublime, but it was the movement which made it. A true goalscorer knows if he can get across his defender at the near post he is always in with a chance of scoring regardless of the contact made on the ball. This is exactly what was going through Hernandez’s mind when he did everything to get in front of his marker. This aspect of his game will please the United coaching staff just as much as the final finish.
Hernandez’s performance, alongside the return of Nani and a competent display by Chris Smalling in his first Premier League start may well have pleased Sir Alex Ferguson, but there were certain aspects of this performance which will have worried the United manager. United’s starting central midfield partnership of Darron Gibson and Darren Fletcher was continually out-muscled and overrun by a Stoke side confident they could win the midfield battle. Gibson let the game pass him by as he was poor in the tackle and his distribution when in possession was nowhere near the required standard. His sole purpose for being in the team appears to be his ability to shoot from distance, but much more is required of a Manchester United midfielder. Perhaps more worryingly, however, was the performance of Fletcher.
Although better than Gibson’s, this was still a below par showing from the Scot who seems to be falling down the pecking order in the United engine room. The energy he is so famed for appeared to be missing; he was wasteful in possession and allowed Stoke to impose themselves on the encounter early in both halves. Fletcher is an important player for United meaning a vast improvement in the level of his performance is needed. United will be pleased to have increased the strength of their position at the top of the Premier League but certain aspects of the performance will again be troubling them. Currently they are relying too heavily on an ordinary performance being capped with a moment of brilliance to save the game. It was enough in this encounter but it may not always be.
21 Rafael – 15 Vidic – 12 Smalling – 3 Evra
17 Nani – 28 Gibson – 24 Fletcher – 11 Giggs
14 Hernandez – 9 Berbatov
78 – 16 Carrick on for 28 Gibson
78 – 7 Owen on for 14 Hernandez