Friday 26 May 2017

Rooney surpasses Charlton as late free saves United's bacon

Stoke City 1 Manchester United 1

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney applauds the fans after his record-breaking leveller. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney applauds the fans after his record-breaking leveller. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

Paul Doyle

Wayne Rooney could hardly have chosen a better time to surpass Bobby Charlton's all-time scoring record for Manchester United. Ninety minutes had elapsed and his team were on the verge of a defeat that would have ended their 16-game unbeaten run and hampered their attempt to climb into the top four, let alone mount an unlikely title challenge, when Rooney stepped up to take a free-kick in what seemed a dangerous crossing position. Instead, Rooney went for goal and curled a wicked shot past the wall and into the far corner. It was a historic moment for the striker, and a mighty relief for his team.

It was also cruel on Stoke, who had defended tenaciously and benefited from shoddy finishing by United, who were failing to respond to the stimulus provided before kick-off by Liverpool's surprising home defeat to Swansea. Instead, Stoke had seized the lead, thanks to an own goal scored by Juan Mata and provoked by Erik Pieters, and then defended it valiantly.

Stoke City's Glenn Whelan (right) and Manchester United's Paul Pogba battle for the ball during the Premier League match at the Bet365 Stadium. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Stoke City's Glenn Whelan (right) and Manchester United's Paul Pogba battle for the ball during the Premier League match at the Bet365 Stadium. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

The hosts had presented their new striker, Saido Berahino, before kick-off but looked on course to win without him. Jose Mourinho made four changes to the side that started the draw against Liverpool in their last match, but he got the configuration of his team wrong. If Stoke's defence have a clear vulnerability, it is to speed, with left-back Pieters especially uncomfortable when faced with rapid attackers, but Mourinho left Marcus Rashford on the bench, while Anthony Martial was not in the squad.

Mourinho played Mata wide on the right and, with Marouane Fellaini in central midfield, the United line-up prioritised solidity over derring-do and, as such, was probably close to the one that Stoke would have selected if given the choice.

The hosts were quite comfortable in the opening exchanges. United were not. In an intoxicatingly bilious atmosphere, rendered even more hostile by the home fans' belief that Stoke were on the wrong end of inconsistency from referee Mark Clattenburg, United seemed cowed. They were stodgy and blunt. Glenn Whelan and Charlie Adam are among the least mobile central midfielders in the Premier League but were enjoying parity, at least, with Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Fellaini.

Even Ryan Shawcross was comfortable at first. The sight of Zlatan Ibrahimovic risked provoking flashbacks for the centre-back whose England career was effectively aborted by the Swede's tormenting of him during a memorable friendly against Sweden in 2012, but United were so short of creativity in the early stages here that Shawcross could ease himself into the game. His first worry was caused by his own goalkeeper, Lee Grant, who collided with him when catching a cross and then spilled the ball.

Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action with Stoke City's Charlie Adam. Photo: Andrew Boyers/Reuters
Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action with Stoke City's Charlie Adam. Photo: Andrew Boyers/Reuters

Shawcross was well enough positioned to block Ibrahimovic's ensuing shot. Neither side mustered a more substantial attack before Stoke took the lead in the 19th minute. Marko Arnautovic found Joe Allen with a chest pass and then spun and dashed down the left to receive the return before pulling the ball back to Pieters, who had made a burst into the box. The Dutchman collected the pass and then fired a low cross towards the six-yard box. Mata tried to block it, but diverted past David De Gea at the near post.

Now United had to wake up. Antonio Valencia broke down the right before floating a nice cross over Shawcross's head to Ibrahimovic at the back post. But the Swede's chest control was fractionally awry, allowing Shawcross to recover and whack the ball to safety. United were soon to squander far better chances.

Pogba helped the chastened visitors gradually take control of midfield, though they still lacked menace out wide. Fellaini got a weak header to a cross from Mata in the 28th minute, although it at least forced Grant to make a save. The goalkeeper had no chance of getting his hands to a shot by Mata three minutes later after running off his line to narrow to confront Ibrahimovic.

But, as it turned out, that did not matter because after the Swede teed Mata up for a tap-in from eight yards, Mata lifted the ball over the unguarded goal. He was not the only United player with his sights misaligned. Mourinho did not make any substitution until the 56th minute, replacing Fellaini with Rashford. But Stoke's resistance had hardened, the home team defending valiantly in the face of relentless pressure. Bruno Martins Indi was excellent, as was Shawcross.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Andrew Boyers/Reuters
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Andrew Boyers/Reuters

Xherdan Shaqiri even threatened to increase Stoke's led on the counter-attack, although it would have taken an exceptional shot to beat De Gea from 25 yards. Shaqiri's attempt was stopped without trouble. Not until 15 minutes from time did United really prise Stoke's defence open again. Rooney, who was introduced in place of Mata just after the hour mark, picked out Rashford with a cross from right, but the youngster curled it just wide. Finally, deep into stoppage-time, Rooney salvaged a point and set a formidable new standard for United goalscorers. (Observer )

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