By Tony Mogan.
After the frustration of going out of the FA Cup following defeat at Liverpool over the weekend, it was time for Manchester United to refocus and re-establish January’s winning run. Thankfully it was business as usual in the Premier League as Sir Alex’s still-injury stricken side eased past an unambitious Stoke City at Old Trafford. 2 goals courtesy of penalties dutifully dispatched by Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov didn’t really depict United’s dominance of the game, as the midfield duo of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes quickly established their firm presence and comfortably controlled the game without ever finding themselves under any real pressure from a vapid Stoke City side.
As United did their job, a former red did his part too, as Darron Gibson slammed home a winner for Everton as they defeated Manchester City at Goodison Park, allowing United to once again close the gap to mere goal difference at the summit of the Premier League.
1) Antonio Valencia continues to make the right flank his own.
Antonio Valencia’s flawless form continued with another exhilarating performance down United’s right flank Tuesday night. Valencia terrified Stoke City’s stagnant defenders, powerfully gliding past them with ease to deliver inch perfect passes into the opposition’s area with splendid frequency. The fact that United’s two goals came courtesy of the penalty spot doesn’t do Valencia much justice for what was a fantastic display of wing play all match, a tale epitomised by Dimitar Berbatov’s miss in the conclusion of the game, laid on a plate for him by the imperious Valencia.
Following dynamic performances against Arsenal, Liverpool and on Tuesday night, Stoke City, United fans are avidly looking forward to him terrorising the unfortunate occupant of Chelsea’s left back slot on Sunday at Stamford Bridge. After picking up a second yellow in their 1-1 draw away to Swansea, Chelsea’s Ashley Cole will find himself ruled out for the first time since April 2010, predictably leading to a great deal of concern in the Chelsea camp. With his replacement likely to be one of David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic or perhaps the 22-year-old Ryan Betrand, Valencia has the opportunity to tear into another victim and keep his riveting form going.
2) Man of the moment Scholes thriving in his return.
Like the plot from a standard bank robbery flick of the 90’s, Paul Scholes has taken the role of the old maestro coaxed out of retirement for one last big score, leading a crack team of rookies along the way. The timeless Scholes has seamlessly fitted back into Untied’s midfield, and has been one of the key components to United’s success in the month of January. Paul Scholes was ushered back into a United midfield that at times, was in desperate need of a calming influence, exacerbated further by an ever-changing combination of players in the middle of the park, bought on by this dreaded injury crisis. What Scholes has bought to the congested midfield is simple, but stunningly effective. When he is given the ball, he rarely loses it. Michael Carrick’s inspiring form this season has played a part in this too, and the metronomic passing and effortless dictation of the game that the two carried out as a midfield duo in the 2006/07 season is showing signs of remerging.
Between the two of them, Carrick and Scholes completed 242 passes during Tuesday night’s game. That’s 50 more than the entire Stoke City team (who managed 192). While Tony Pulis’ men are hardly known for the incisive brand of passing football, it is still a remarkable statistic. After 6 months of no first team football, Scholes is still working on returning to full match fitness and worryingly for Premier League teams, his top form.
3) Pogba shines following Morrison’s departure
As the news that the perennially troubled Ravel Morrison was being shown the door at Old Trafford to sign for Championship outfit West Ham, attention turned to United’s other midfield prodigy. Engulfed in a similarly vague contract situation as Ravel had been over the previous months, Paul Pogba was given an opportunity by Sir Alex Ferguson to impress the fans who were left so bitterly disappointed by Morrison’s alleged personal conduct and eventual departure. Pogba took that chance with aplomb, coming on for an impressive cameo in the second half of Tuesday’s game. A lively performance where he exhibited his exciting range of passing, desire to get into the box and willingness to assert himself within this United team gave fans reassurance on a day where one of the team’s brightest but most problematic young talents finally used up all of the patience of his coaches, his team mates and his manager.
Pogba’s inclusion in the squad and run out during the latter stages of the game occurring hours after Morrison’s exit surely wasn’t a coincidence, and it sent out a reassuring message as fans wait for the 18-year-old Frenchmen’s personal contract situation to be resolved.
4) Jonny Evans continues to impress.
Often one of the Man United’s prime scapegoats when things don’t go according to plan, the 24-year-old Northern Irishman turned in another controlled and composed performance at the heart of defence against Stoke City’s imposing attacking threat. Evans impressed, dispelling the idea that he cannot shackle strikers of the tall, strong and brutish variety, a ridiculous notion considering some of Evan’s best games in a United shirt have come up against the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Didier Drogba. Admittedly he wasn’t tested defensively as much as he is likely to be over the coming two weeks, but it is clear to see that Evans is benefiting from this extended run in the team, playing with an aura of confidence and self-belief that the young defender has sometimes lacked. Now confident in bringing the ball out of defence and linking up play with clever and well-timed distribution, he has been a real asset during Phil Jones’ and Rio Ferdinand’s absences throughout January, having formed a commanding partnership with Chris Smalling.
5) Was David De Gea taken out of the firing line?
On Tuesday morning, news began to emerge that both Anders Lindergaard and David De Gea would miss the game against Stoke City later that evening, due to an ankle injury and a bout of illness respectively. Given Stoke’s penchant for launching throw in’s and long balls into the opposition’s penalty area, causing havoc in the process, more than a few were led to assume that David De Gea was taken out of the equation for his own sake, following a high profile error against Liverpool at the weekend. In the end however, it wouldn’t have mattered, as Stoke offered no such threat whatsoever, with whatever half-hearted attempts they could muster comfortably handled by debutant Ben Amos, who would have been delighted to collect a clean sheet on his first Premier League outing.