Antonio Valencia marked his return to the Manchester United first-team with a stunning strike as Jose Mourinho’s men ran out comfortable 3-0 winners against a hapless Stoke City side at Old Trafford on Monday night. The commanding victory over the Potters sees United reduce the gap with league leaders Manchester City to 12 points, following the Blues’ 4-3 defeat away to Liverpool 24 hours earlier. Jose Mourinho’s men had made a perfect start to the new year prior to Monday night’s clash, courtesy of two consecutive 2-0 victories over Everton and Derby County and made it three wins out of three without having to really break a sweat.
It did not take United long to make the breakthrough against a Stoke side that came into the game in 18th place in the Premier League standings and who had recently parted ways with manager and former Red Mark Hughes, replacing him with Paul Lambert, who was an interested spectator in the stands. With less than 10 minutes on the clock at Old Trafford, Paul Pogba, who ran the show in the middle of the park for United, played the ball into the feet of the returning Valencia, stationed on the right-hand side of the edge of the box. The Ecuadorian wasted no time in cutting in on his rarely-used left-foot and smash the ball into the top-corner past Jack Butland, who could get nowhere near the powerful strike.
Having taken an early lead, complacency seemed to creep in for the home side, who were fortunate to remain in front as Stephen Ireland and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting were presented with glorious opportunities to level the scoring, only for those chances to be spurned. Shortly before half-time, Anthony Martial got his name on the scoresheet with a brilliant first-time caressed finish into the top corner after a beautifully-weighted ball into his path by the mercurial Pogba. That strike made it 10 goals in all competitions for United this campaign, further underlining the Frenchman’s growing importance to Mourinho’s ranks. Just before the break, goalkeeper David de Gea kept out Xherdan Shaqiri’s stinging effort with a fantastic low stop to ensure the home side went into the interval sitting on a comfortable two-goal lead.
United took their foot off the gas in the second-half, content to take the sting out of the game and wait patiently for the chance to add to the scoreline. In truth, the home side were somewhat wasteful in front of goal, with Juan Mata in particular guilty of spurning a number of good opportunities to bolster the Reds’ goal difference, although when he did find the back of the net, the Spaniard’s cheeky backheeled finish was correctly ruled out for offside. Not long after, United had their third and Romelu Lukaku had his goal, showing his strength to hold off Kevin Wimmer before firing the ball past Butland from close-range. The Belgian, who scored in the Reds’ most recent fixture at home to Derby, was handed his first start of the new year and led the line well for Mourinho and was ultimately rewarded for his hard-working performance with the 16th strike of his short United career.
After that, it was all about seeing out the remaining few minutes for the home side, although Marcus Rashford, on as a substitute for the closing stages of the encounter, nearly added a fourth, only for Butland to deny the England international. At the other end, de Gea pulled off another impressive stop to deny former United man Mame Biram Diouf from bagging a consolation goal for the beleaguered visitors. Whilst United should undoubtedly have added to the scoreline with the amount of chances created, Mourinho will be pleased with this result and can now look forward to Saturday’s tricky trip to Burnley with renewed optimism.
With the likes of Pogba, Martial and Lukaku in fine form at the moment, United have every reason to be cheerful and they will take heart from a performance that saw them pick up three points and three goals, despite not being at their very best.