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Van Persie breaks drought as Man United top Stoke

Apr 14, 2013, 11:14 AM EDT

Can Tony Pulis save Crystal Palace? Getty Images

Is Geoff Cameron about to be playing second-level soccer? Stoke City’s relegation fears deepened today after a predictable 2-0 defeat to Manchester United.

When the United States international left the Houston Dynamo for England last August, he had reason to expect he was joining a club that would challenge for a place in the top half of the Premier League.

After promotion in 2008, the division’s most-physical, direct team had been a model of consistency, finishing comfortably in the middle of the standings each year. Just look at their total points in each of the past four seasons: 45, 47, 46, 45. Manager Tony Pulis has spent some decent money, too, lavishing $7.6 million last August to take playmaker Charlie Adam from Liverpool and going Texan again in January to prise Brek Shea from FC Dallas.

A solid roster, effective playing style, intimidating home crowd and ample Premier League experience: it was all set for Stoke to have a break-out year. Instead, they simply look broken.

Stoke’s form since January puts Pulis under intense scrutiny, with media talk suggesting his seven-year reign is under threat. They’ve collected only one point from their past seven matches and have won only once in the league since beating Liverpool 3-1 on December 26.

Among the 92 clubs in England’s top four divisions, only Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and David Moyes have stayed with their current employers longer than Pulis. But any manager would come under scrutiny with an ongoing run of 2-11-4 in all competitions. Stoke have the Premier League’s worst record since January and are only three points clear of the drop zone, having played two more fixtures than 18th-placed Wigan Athletic. Their grinding, aggressive tactics ought to mitigate against such a deep slump – but it looks like they’ve gone stale. It doesn’t help that key striker Peter Crouch is out-of-sorts with only five league goals, half his tally from 2011-12.

Cameron started at right back today but United prised open the defense after only four minutes, Michael Carrick poking in from a Van Persie corner. It was Carrick’s first league goal since January, 2012 – a woeful scoring rate for a midfielder of his talent.

Speaking of slumps, Van Persie had not found the net for his club since February 10 – an eternity given how prolific he has been in his first season at Old Trafford. But when defender Andy Wilkinson felled him midway through the second half, Van Persie stepped up to score the penalty. It was so windy that the ball initially rolled away from the penalty spot.

With Manchester City facing Chelsea in the FA Cup today, the win restored United’s Premier League lead to 15 points.

Stoke now face a trio of what look like season-defining games against fellow relegation-threatened sides: QPR, Norwich City and Sunderland. It shouldn’t be a fireable offense to lose to England’s best team – but try telling that to Sunderland’s ownership.

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