Thursday 20 June 2019

Pogba pulls the strings as United close gap

Man Utd 3-0 Stoke City

Paul Pogba holds off the challenge of Xherdan Shaqiri
Paul Pogba holds off the challenge of Xherdan Shaqiri

Jason Burt

Manchester United are closing in on a wonderful striker, but they won this encounter through some wonderful strikes.

Stoke City provided the fodder and Paul Pogba frolicked as the midfielder set up both first-half goals and a host of other chances, offering a glimpse of what he may provide should Alexis Sanchez soon be a team-mate (unless there is that late Chelsea intervention).

Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku scores his side's third goal of the game Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku scores his side's third goal of the game Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

United consolidated themselves in second place and reduced Manchester City's lead to 12 points.

On an evening when City pulled out of the running to sign Sanchez, United will consider it a win-win, with Romelu Lukaku also back among the goals.

For Stoke, this was a fixture to fulfil as they remain in the relegation zone, watched by their new manager Paul Lambert, who took his place in the directors' box.

As comprehensively as they were beaten, they still fashioned opportunities but will have to defend far better to survive.

Manchester United's Anthony Martial and Stoke City's Moritz Bauer (right) battle for control of the ball Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester United's Anthony Martial and Stoke City's Moritz Bauer (right) battle for control of the ball Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

They are shorn of confidence and were unable to cope with Pogba's swagger.

There was no Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the squad for United, a player Jose Mourinho said was not one of those whose head was "100 per cent in Manchester United", given the distinct possibility that he could leave, that the manager wants him to leave, and quite possibly to Arsenal, during this transfer window.

But there was Antonio Valencia, fit again after four weeks out with a hamstring injury, and the captain marked his return with a sumptuous goal after nine minutes.

The full-back collected a pass from Paul Pogba, cut inside and arced a rare left-footed shot around goalkeeper Jack Butland and into the net from just inside the penalty area. It was a fine strike; a well-worked goal.

Cue the cameras cutting to Lambert in the directors' box, attempting to elicit a response. He buried his head into his coat but that was more to do with the cold and swirling rain.

He already knew the scale of the task - and had met the players before kick-off - even if that goal was a reminder.

But there was almost a response as Xherdan Shaqiri met a deep cross with an acrobatic kick that David De Gea clutched at his near post.

Stephen Ireland - making his first Premier League start in nearly three years - was then picked out, unmarked in the penalty area, but snatched at the chance, dragging his low shot wide as Chris Smalling rushed out to cover.

Eddie Niedzwiecki, in what will be his one and only match in caretaker charge, went with an attacking line-up and handed a debut to Austrian full-back Moritz Bauer, and he was involved as they carved out another chance.

It was one they should have taken, with Bauer finding Shaqiri, who quickly moved the ball to Ireland. Once more, though, he rushed his shot, steering it wide.

Stoke continued to threaten, with Peter Crouch beating De Gea to a cross by Bauer. The ball dropped to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who seemed certain to score, only for his half-volley to be deflected over by a lunging Phil Jones.

Stoke should have been level. Instead they fell further behind with a rare passage of fluid play by United, with Lukaku running down the right, turning the ball back inside to Pogba, who had the vision to move it across the face of the area, with a 'no-look pass'. That was met by Anthony Martial, who struck a superb, first-time, side-footed shot that curled around Butland and high into the goal.

Was it over? It felt like it, although, before half-time, Shaqiri sent in a low shot that De Gea again did well to hold on to.

On the touchline Mourinho shook his head. His team were 2-0 up but this was a game in which they had allowed a shell-shocked opposition chances.

Pogba almost claimed his third assist when he intercepted a sloppy pass by Kurt Zouma and stabbed the ball through to Martial. Fortunately for Stoke, Butland was alert and rushed from goal to intercept.

Soon after a Juan Mata cross was only cleared to Pogba, whose shot, with the outside of his boot, appeared goal-bound but was deflected wide. Then, from close range, Martial wriggled through only for Butland to deny him again, before Mata turned the ball wide.

There may have been mixed feelings among the Stoke fans over Lambert's appointment, but choruses of 'Paul Lambert's Barmy Army' rang from the away end as United racked up yet more chances. Mata shot over and Butland denied Lukaku with his legs.

It only delayed the inevitable. Jesse Lingard broke, Martial fired the ball into Lukaku and the Stoke defenders stood off as he picked his spot and drilled his shot low past Butland. Maybe there had been a handball by Lukaku, but Stoke were too beaten to protest.

There should have been a Stoke goal when substitute Mame Biram Diouf chested down Shaqiri's flighted pass, only for De Gea to block his first shot before the former United forward sent his second wastefully into the side-netting. There would be no consolation.

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