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Jan 4, 2011

Substance over style once again

The choice of the half-time music was familiar. "Glory, Glory Man United" invariably serves as a reminder of past successes and often proves an accurate prediction of the prospects at Old Trafford. And yet an alternative, less bombastic verdict was delivered by its occupants. Javier Hernandez's delightful opening goal led to a chorus of "we're shit and we're top of the league".

• Man United 2-1 Stoke: Match report
• Premier League review
• Premier League gallery

There is an element of exaggeration to their self-deprecation. Not execrable, United are simply below their best. But there was also a rebuke to rivals who make rather more grandiose claims from lowlier positions. United are unbeaten, three points clear and with a game in hand on second-placed Manchester City; if this is mediocrity, plenty of others would willingly embrace it.

But the comparisons can be drawn with their past, not others' present. Many in the Old Trafford public are under no illusions that this is a vintage United side. Most of those too young to remember Sir Matt Busby's three great teams can recall Sir Alex Ferguson's tremendous trio, the glorious sides of 1994, 1999 and 2008. The current crop lack the brio; they are not irresistible entertainers featuring a superior calibre of warrior.

They do, however, retain the ability to make telling contributions at important moments. "They know how to win games," said Tony Pulis. "There is a mentality at the football club. There is something ingrained at the club that gives them that edge."

Their latest triumph was not classic United, but generally it isn't. Their manager disagrees. Piqued at the lack of glowing praise, Ferguson is constructing his latest siege mentality. "We're an easy target for that kind of thing," he said. "Some of our performances at home have been fantastic."

Not many, though. Only against Liverpool, Blackburn and Arsenal have they even approached their peak. Against Stoke they have twin 2-1 wins in games where the goals were memorable but much else wasn't. A largely uneventful evening at Old Trafford nonetheless contained two of the classier strikes of United's season, from Hernandez and Nani, and the anticipated three points.

Ferguson tends to identify certain players for specific games and his No. 14 is becoming the scourge of Stoke. They have amassed an unfortunate amount of evidence about Hernandez's ability to improvise. The Mexican's unorthodox back header set United on their way to victory at the Britannia Stadium in October; at Old Trafford his backheeled flick did likewise.

It came when Dimitar Berbatov fed Nani on the right wing. The winger slid in the low cross that Hernandez, darting from far post to near ahead of Ryan Shawcross, met with a deft touch off the instep of his right heel to divert the ball past Asmir Begovic. "We keep saying to strikers to get across the front post," Ferguson said. "We preach it, Chicharito did it and got the reward for it."

Stoke's leveller was a minor piece of history. Escaping the attentions of Nemanja Vidic, Dean Whitehead headed in Tuncay's cross. It was their first goal at Old Trafford since 1980.

There can be a carelessness about United, but they are often able to recover. In this instance, they did so emphatically.

Accepting Hernandez's pass and as supplier and scorer of the first goal exchanged roles, Nani turned sharply and curled a shot in unerringly from the edge of the penalty area. "Sensational," said Ferguson.

A hip injury had only sidelined the Portuguese winger for three matches, but it was long enough to determine that United missed him - especially when Gabriel Obertan and Darren Fletcher manned the flanks at the Hawthorns. Nani, in comparison, was deemed a "leg-beater" by Pulis for his prowess at defeating opponents. Another who meets that description, Ryan Giggs attempted the audacious, a flick of the left boot lofting an effort over the bar, but there were no subsequent or superfluous goals.

United did not need them. Now undefeated in 25 league games and with 12 wins in 13 attempts at Old Trafford, they still expect to improve. "Our history tells us we play better in the second half [of the season]," Ferguson added. And that is what everyone else is dreading.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Javier Hernandez - A second goal in as many games showed the sharpness of the Mexican. With neither Dimitar Berbatov nor Wayne Rooney proving consistent in a campaign where the Bulgarian has offered rather more than the Englishman, Hernandez is emerging as an excellent option.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: The merit of many of their squad players can be debated but this was an occasion when Ferguson rotated successfully. He made six changes, with the injured Wayne Rooney, Anderson and Rio Ferdinand spared for Liverpool's visit in the FA Cup. Chris Smalling was "magnificent", according to his manager, on his first league start for the club, to further the impression he has displaced Jonny Evans in the pecking order. However, Darron Gibson was a colourless presence in midfield and the lesser-spotted Michael Owen's first appearance for three months was forgettable.

STOKE VERDICT: Having lost 5-0 and 4-0 on their two previous visits to Old Trafford, this result represented a marked improvement. Shawcross and Robert Huth are forming a fine central defensive partnership and a third thrashing was rarely likely. However, it was something of a surprise when they scored, given their limited threat. Tuncay's role, and indeed his surprise selection, was notable. The talented Turk has become a cause celebre in the Potteries in his lengthy time on the bench.

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