Dec 18, 2013, 5:30 PM EDT
Second half goals from Ashley Young and Patrice Evra completed a surprisingly easy day at the Britannia Stadium for Manchester United, the Red Devils’ 2-0 victory over Stoke City putting David Moyes‘ team into the League Cup semifinals. Holding their opponents without a shot on goal, United move one step closer to their first major piece of silverware under their new boss, with the Potters providing little opposition to a team that only sits five places above them in the Premier League.
On Wednesday, however, the divide may as well have been that which existed between last year’s league winners and a relegation battler, with a slow start from the visitors giving way to a comfortable victory. Though Manchester United’s early control produced few good chances, the favorites eventually adjusted to their host’s passive if dogged play, the game’s final goal the result of the Red Devils having finally figured out Mark Hughes’s side.
As a result, Manchester United move into the League Cup semifinals, where they were drawn against Sunderland, the Black Cats having eliminated Chelsea on Tuesday. In the other half of the draw, Manchester City, 3-1 winners on Tuesday at Leicester City, will face West Ham United, who won at White Hart Lane on Wednesday.
The game started with a much-changed United team in a slightly unfamiliar formation, David Moyes choosing a three-man midfield to play behind Danny Welbeck, who was alone up top. With Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia flanking the young England international, United nearly took an early lead, Welbeck’s play wide right to Young ending with the winger’s fourth minute shot into outside netting.
Initial troubles with surprise, high pressure from Stoke devolved into United holding more of the ball as the Potters regressed into a more passive posture. But without Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, or Shinji Kagawa in the team, the Red Devils lacked a way to unlock their hosts, a better safe than sorry save from Thomas Sørensen in the 22nd minute the closest thing United had mustered to a threat on target.
As the half-hour mark approached, Stoke-on-Trent became Istanbul, with referee Mark Clattenburg pulling the teams off the field as the Brittania came under a flash hailstorm. While the storm fell short of the weather that forced the cancellation of last week’s Galatasaray-Juventus Champions League match in Turkey, visibility had begun to be impaired by the density of the falling pellets. Amid objections from a few players, including Stoke’s Jon Walters, the players retreated to their dressing room, returning five minutes later once the storm had passed.
The 15 minutes before halftime saw Manchester United resume a somewhat benign control of the ball, possession they were able to hold above the penalty area rarely bothering Sørenson. Stoke were able to create as many problems for United going back the other way, though their crosses in transition were equally tepid. Come minute 45, the players were again returning to the locker rooms scoreless, United left ruing a stoppage time misplay by Jonny Evans that should have converted a corner kick into a goal.
Seven minutes into the second half, a sudden blast off the right boot of Ashley Young cut through all of United’s middling efforts, firing the Red Devils in front. Off a restart just inside the Stoke half, Young played a long one-two with recent substitute Javier Hernández, a connection that was more a missed touch from the Mexican international than the product of clear intent. Regardless, Young was able to run onto a ball at 20 yards out just before ‘Chicharito’ had a chance to make amends, the winger’s blast giving Sørensen little chance before rocketing past the Stoke keeper into goal.
For Young, it was the culmination of one of his most active days of the year, though the shot was still a surprisingly strong one. Occasionally, soccer gives a moment that causes a collective pause – stadium, announcers, and players momentarily hesitating to consider what they’d just seen. On a play that looked broken because of Hernández’s poor touch, Young nailed that pausing-giving rocket, leaving Sorensen no time to react to a ball few imagined would head toward goal. Instead, the shot burst off the winger’s laces and into the back of the net, the large space between ball and left post rendered meaningless by the sure speed of the blast.
In the 78th minute, Evra provided insurance, though Stoke’s defending played the bigger part in Manchester United’s second goal. Circulating at the edge of their attacking third, much as they’d done throughout much of the first half, United eventually worked the ball left to Young, who carried it toward the flag, dragging two defenders with him. This gave Evra room to cut toward the penalty area, and when Young’s return pass failed to draw a defender, the France international had a surprisingly easy opportunity from the middle of the box. Twelve minutes before full time, the match was effectively over, Stoke having allowed United a 2-0 lead.
Holding the Potters without a shot on target, it was an unexpectedly easy day for the Red Devils, one that was reflected in the lack of urgency they showed throughout the match. But given the changes Moyes made to the team, one that was playing without many of their most creative players, the victory could also be seen as a confident, assured one. Although the first half was pointless and the weather threatened to end the spectators’ misery, the second half was a telling one, with Manchester United easing into the League Cup’s semifinals.
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