Javier Hernandez scored his third goal in two matches against Stoke with a very clever finish in the opening half, however, that was canceled out by Dean Whitehead’s header within minutes of the restart, but Nani scored another left-footed winner on his return from injury.
With all of the other four title rivals not playing until tomorrow, the win sees United extend their lead at the top of the Premier League table to three points.
Sir Alex Ferguson made six changes from the side that won 2-1 against West Bromwich Albion – bringing in Rafael, Chris Smalling, Nani, Ryan Giggs, Darron Gibson and Javier Hernandez, who scored the game winning goal against the Baggies.
The most notable addition to the United starting XI was Sir Alex was able to recall Nani, who missed the last three matches with a hip injury, so his pace will be welcomed bonus against Stoke City.
With Edwin van der Sar being rested after his bout with an illness, Tomasz Kuszczak was given his second straight start in the Premier League for the first time since the middle of last season.
In the build up to the match there was a slight hint that there was an injury crisis at United, but, even if there is, Sir Alex had suitable replacements to be able to give both Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney a rest after playing most of United’s matches for the last month and a half.
As expected United started the game by dominating the possession of the ball in all areas of the pitch, and within the first couple of minutes they created two half chances from Chicharito and Dimitar Berbatov ended up in Asmir Begovic’s arms and being blocked by a Stoke defender.
In the sixth minute, and after another good spell of possession, Darron Gibson decided to test Begovic with a long-range shot, and his effort bent just the wrong side of the Stoke right-hand post.
Stoke began to get on the ball a bit more, and with Ryan Giggs pinched in way too far, Andy Wilkinson cut inside Gibson and blazed a shot-cross, which deflected out for a corner to put United under some unneeded pressure.
On the other end, Wilkinson then did well to cut a very good passing move from United, but the danger was not fully cleared.
The ball made its way into Berbatov, and with his back to goal, he played back to Gibson, who tried placing his shot into the top corner, but it was blocked and out for a corner before it could make it to its destination.
A long searching ball from Vidic found its way to Giggs in the box, and with Ryan Shawcross closely marking him the ball popped up into the defender’s hand and killed the chance – could have gone either way from Mark Clattenburg.
Giggs made a darting run and had a go from distance, and his shot took a major deflection into the path of Berbatov, but the Bulgarian was unable to tuck it away – even he did it would have been correctly ruled out for offside.
Danny Collins brought down Nani 25-yards from goal, but Giggs’ left-footed, curling effort went well over Begovic’s crossbar.
The pressure was clearly mounting, and Chicharito found Giggs with loads of space on the left, but he thought way too long and Stoke crowded the chance out, but again it was only half-cleared and the visitor’s paid the price.
Berbatov played the ball out wide to Nani, and the fit-again winger played in a low cross, which was cleverly clipped between Shawcross’ legs by Chicharito into the Stoke net.
A couple of minutes later Robert Huth chopped down Berbatov to give United another free-kick within shooting distance, and it was Nani, who took it this time, but, again, it ended up in the crowd behind the Stoke goal.
Stoke’s first real shot of the match came from a former United youngster, Marc Wilson, who scored an own goal on his last visit to Old Trafford with Portsmouth last season, and his 45-yard effort was adventurous to say the least and did not test Kuszczak.
Then it was Nani’s turn to hit a shot from distance, and from the same position he scored a left-footed screamer against Bursaspor in October, he screwed his shot horribly wide out for a goal kick.
A very good long cross-field pass from Giggs was smartly met by a first-time header from Nani into the path of Hernandez, but it was well defended by Stoke, which was very close to doubling the United lead, and, somehow, the refereeing crew awarded them a goal kick.
With five minutes left in the first-half, the two teams decided to play a game of football tennis, and it ended up with a goal scoring chance for Matthew Etherington, but his shot was always rising and did not trouble United goalkeeper.
To close out the half, United began passing the ball on the ground with purpose, but some timely interventions from Stoke defenders and a poor back-post cross from Fletcher saw the chances come to nothing.
United started the second-half attacking the Stretford End, but it was the visitors that started the restart better and it ended up with a decent header from Tuncay that ended up wide of the mark.
It was was then a chance for United to break forward, but, unfortunately, it came to nothing as well, because the Reds, Giggs in particular, were too unselfish and passed rather than challenge Begovic.
In acres of space, Tuncay was able to pick out an unmarked Dean Whitehead in the United area, and the midfielder headed Stoke level from close range.
With time and space, Nani had a chance to have a shot from 25-yards from goal, but it was deflected wide for a corner, and from that corner Smalling got in front of his marker only to head wide of the post.
The game started to go back and forth, and United looked to be lacking the inventiveness in the midfield, so it was a chance for the forwards to create something – and they did just that.
Hernandez shimmied away from his marker with a drop of the shoulder, and then faked a shot, which allowed him to play the ball out wide to Nani, and the winger was given just a half of a yard and blasted the ball into the back of the net with his left foot.
United started to make some very good positive passes looking for a two-goal lead, and they nearly got it on a couple of occasions if it was not some good defensive blocks from Stoke.
Tony Pulis made two attack-minded changes with former Liverpool midfielder, Jermaine Penant, coming on for Etherington, and then Rory Delap was replaced by Jonathan Walters.
Some very good interchange between Nani and Rafael saw the full-back lay the ball off to Hernandez, but his shot ended a few rows up in the Stretford End.
A great intervention from Vidic saw the ball played to Giggs, and the ageless winger played a delightful ball in to space for Chicharito to run onto, but Begovic did well to get off his line and clear the ball away.
With just over 15 minutes to go, Pulis made his third, and final change with Kenwyne Jones withdrawn in favor of Ricardo Fuller in a like-for-like substitution.
Giggs tried a ridiculous back-heeled pass, which gave the possession to Stoke City, and they attacked down their right-hand side, and Fuller almost made an immediate impact after
Sir Alex then made two changes of his own by bringing on Michael Carrick and Michael Owen for Gibson and Hernandez, respectively.
Some very good passing – about 15 to 20 – saw Giggs glance Rafael’s cross just wide of the Begovic’s far post.
With the ball down in the Stoke left-hand corner, Evra was dispossessed, and the Frenchman chopped down Pennant to the applause of the United crowd.
There was a scary moment for United in the opening moments of stoppage-time when Rafael slipped to allow Fuller to cross, which took a deflection off Smalling, but Kuszczak prevented it from going out for a corner by smothering the ball.
Owen almost had a chance to add the third United goal, but after doing well to win Nani’s cross he stumbled and the opportunity came to nothing.
Manchester United did well to hang on for this well-fought 2-1 victory, and they will definitely know that they earned all three points, because Stoke City challenged them to the very end.
Coming back from a three match layoff Nani was constantly involved in the United attack and provided another assist and scored the game winner.
T. Kuszczak – 6; Rafael – 7, C. Smalling – 7, N. Vidic – 7, P. Evra – 7; Nani – 7, D. Fletcher – 7, D. Gibson – 6 (M. Carrick – 6), R. Giggs – 6; J. Hernandez – 7 (M. Owen – 5), D. Berbatov – 7
J. Hernandez (27′), Nani (62′)
Shots (On Target): 19 (2)
Fouls Conceded (Suffered): 6 (11)