United pass tough Potters test

Manchester United pulled three points clear at the top of the Premier League but were forced to work hard for a 2-1 win over Stoke on Tuesday.

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Nani: Celebrates his winning goal for United

Nani: Celebrates his winning goal for United

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United's unbeaten fight for the title reached 20 matches at Old Trafford as Javier Hernandez and Nani scored the goals that sank Tony Pulis' Potters.

Dean Whitehead had headed home a shock leveller for the visitors at the start of the second half but Sir Alex Ferguson's men just about deserved their latest triumph.

It took United's tally to 19 points out of the last 21 and opened up a lead of three points over Manchester City and five on Arsenal ahead of their meeting at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday.

Yet rarely can such impressive and imposing statistics be greeted with such an underwhelming response, which is possibly the strangest aspect of a very strange season, which Hernandez at least has plenty of reason to enjoy.

When Hernandez was considering the delights that awaited in his first season at United, it is fair to assume Stoke would not have been top of his list. But long after he has returned to Mexico, he will remember his meetings with the men from the Potteries.

In October it was that jaw-dropping back header, which even a renowned exponent such as Andy Gray admitted he would have struggled to emulate in his heyday.

Tuesday night's effort was no less audacious. Nipping in front of former United defender Ryan Shawcross at the near post, Hernandez reacted quickly as Nani drilled over a low cross.

Letting the ball run behind him, he quickly flicked back his right leg and turned it at right angles, into a goal that Asmir Begovic thought he had covered.

It was Hernandez's ninth goal of the season and his second in four days.

Little wonder Ferguson had enough faith in the striker not to worry too much about the absence of Wayne Rooney, who watched on from an executive suite in the company of Stereophonics frontman Kelly Jones.

Rio Ferdinand was missing too, rested ahead of Sunday's FA Cup tie with Liverpool, which allowed Chris Smalling to make his first league start.

Not that the England Under-21 defender had that much to do as United dominated proceedings without carving out too many clear-cut opportunities.

Dimitar Berbatov had one after Ryan Giggs' shot deflected into his path off Shawcross.

But, although the Bulgarian controlled brilliantly, under pressure from Marc Wilson, he prodded wide rather than into the same corner Hernandez found shortly afterwards.

The overwhelming feeling at half-time was of the hosts once again scraping by without really exuding any of the class expected.

And five minutes after the restart they were pegged back as Whitehead nipped between Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra to nod home Tuncay's cross unchallenged.

It was the centre-piece of a period of genuine Stoke pressure and brought the Potteries outfit their first Old Trafford goal since 1980.

And for while a nervousness and anxiety betrayed United's play.

Berbatov ranted at Nani for not passing to him quickly enough as another home attack broke down in its infancy.

Yet if their actual play leaves many doubters unconvinced about their actual merits in comparison to Ferguson teams of old, the Red Devils' durability cannot be questioned.

And when Danny Collins failed to get tight to Nani as he collected Hernandez's pass on the edge of the area, the Portugal winger turned swiftly before finding the bottom corner with a precise curling left-footed shot.

Although there has been the odd outstanding performance, such as the one that brought seven goals against Blackburn, it is upon such magical moments that United's season has been built thus far.

The late introduction of Michael Owen for his first appearance of the winter, and his run to reach a Nani cross that did not bounce kindly for him in stoppage time, suggests Ferguson does have options that Arsenal and Chelsea in particular cannot match.

It was the presence of another former Liverpool man, Jermaine Pennant, that the crowd chose to highlight as attention switched to Sunday's FA Cup tie with the ailing Merseysiders, which will presumably not peter out as this did.

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