Ryan Shawcross helps Stoke City shock and stunt Manchester United
Louis van Gaal and Manchester United’s summer signings will have learned that wet and windy away days at the Britannia Stadium live up to their reputation, as a supposed challenge for a top two spot faltered once more.
Stoke City certainly profited from the harsh weather conditions and the Red Devils’ soft centre, but were more than worthy of splitting the spoils.
The Potters seemed to settle for their portion of the points, yet could easily have sealed a famous victory on New Year’s Day, if not for poor finishing, as they first stunned then shut out their visitors.
United academy product and Stoke skipper Ryan Shawcross gave the game a thrilling start, putting his side ahead within two minutes.
It was a famed Potters set piece that somewhat predictably breached the Red Devils’ rearguard, as Peter Crouch headed on a corner for a criminally unmarked Stoke skipper Ryan Shawcross to lash home inside two minutes against his boyhood club.
The sturdy centre half had another sensational game, as did left back Erik Pieters, and the pair kept an isolated Robin van Persie quiet for the majority of the match.
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw cannot say the same of their efforts, with man marking and organisation at set pieces surely a vital part of preparation for any visit to the Britannia.
Crouch, previously the scourge of Arsenal this season, and strike partner Mame Biram Diouf, another ex-United man, also played a huge part in Stoke’s stifling performance.
They may have missed opportunities up top, particularly Senegal striker Diouf, who looked dangerous as he turned Jonny Evans inside out before unbelievably firing wide, but often dropped back deeper to fluster United.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, is still searching for a third Premier League away win of the season, as the Red Devils’ troubles on their travels continued.
They may be unbeaten in their last 10 outings, but there are still obvious issues to address. Stoke stood fast to strike their weak points effectively and were unlucky to see a penalty claim for a blatant handball by Smalling dismissed.
Radamel Falcao was a bright spark for United, however, and appeared understandably confused to find himself the first to be substituted after a tenacious and determined performance.
The Colombian crucially capitalised from a Wayne Rooney corner, flicked on by Michael Carrick, to slot home an equaliser in the 26th minute and save Van Gaal’s blushes, but was hooked off in the second half as an ineffective Van Persie stayed put.
The Red Devils missed Falcao’s fight, and also sidelined Marouane Fellaini’s physical presence, as Stoke seemed to be first to every loose ball.
An apparent hamstring injury to Ashley Young will have compounded Louis van Gaal’s injury woes but, to their credit, United continued to probe for a winner.
Poor weather conditions are unlikely to appease the Dutch coach, though, as his team were again sometimes sloppy and ponderous in possession.
United could do worse than look to Chelsea’s previous performance against the Potters, with the Blues’ quickness of thought and passing key to breaking down the Britannia outfit’s backline blockade.
Mark Hughes will certainly be the happier of the two managers, as his side continue to be an obstacle for Premier League giants.