Based on a performance that happened almost a year ago to date, a lot of critics would never have been able to pick the Manchester United line-up that faced Stoke City.
On January 3 of last year, United lost to their hated-rival, Leeds United, 1-0 in the FA Cup, and some of the players that played – or did not play – were instrumental in the 2-1 victory over the Potters.
Despite the early stage of the competition, Sir Alex Ferguson named a very fleshy first-choice line-up for the Cross-Pennines Derby, but there were only four players who survived from that match, however, it was the other players who have played a significant part in either this match, or the entire season.
The four players that remained – Dimitar Berbatov, Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson and Tomasz Kuszczak – did not do all that much to impress against Stoke, but Nemanja Vidic, Christopher Smalling, Rafael, Nani and Javier Hernandez all played significant roles in United’s 2-1 victory over Stoke.
The only other two changes from that Third Round disappointment against The Whites were Ryan Giggs, who played more than a half-hour against Leeds, and Patrice Evra – and both of them played very well down United’s left-hand side to trouble the Potters all match long, and because of their valuable contribution throughout this and last season, neither factor in.
Vidic, who was named the United captain in August, ruled himself out of the match with some sort of pre-match injury, but Sir Alex was unaware of what was troubling the tough Serbian defender.
A lot of people back then were convinced that the hard-nosed defender was doing his best to force his way out of Old Trafford to secure a very lucrative move to either Barcelona or Real Madrid.
However, since ending all speculation and signing a new contract with United, Sir Alex named Vidic to be the long-term captain to replace the out-of-favor Gary Neville, and often-missing Rio Ferdinand, because he will always be selected when fit.
Vidic’s central defensive partner for the match against the Potters was Smalling, who was not even a worth a whisper when Leeds came to Old Trafford.
The huge 6’4″ center-back was not even featuring for his current club at the time, but come the end of the January transfer window the former Maidstone United defender signed for one of the biggest clubs in the world for a cool £10 million.
So many pundits laughed when they heard that Sir Alex signed Smalling, but the quick talking 21-year old has appeared in all six of United’s UEFA Champions League Group stage matches, and now he seamlessly fit in for Rio Ferdinand.
Rio is one of the classiest defenders of all-time, and is proved by how a very defensive minded Fabio Capello has instilled him as the captain of England, which goes to show that Smalling can fill in for the very best England has to offer.
Some might fault Smalling for the goal, but he did what a natural would have done – cover for his fellow retreating defender – Rafael.
At this time last year, Rafael was fourth choice in the pecking order for right-back behind Gary Neville, Wes Brown and John O’Shea, but even adversity could not hold back the young Brazilian.
Now 20, Rafael has surpassed all expectations and leapfrogged all of the players ahead of him, and regained Sir Alex’s faith after being sent off against Bayern Munich in Quarter-Finals of the Champions League.
Rafael is now one of the premier right-backs in England and has silenced two of the best attacking players in the Premier League – Tottenham’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Samri Nasri.
Rafael’s partner on the right-flank has been one of the biggest surprises and has established himself as one of most regarded two-footed players in England.
Nani was United’s third leading goal scorer in the last year with 11 goals, but as he proved against Stoke, he can provide a lot of opportunities for his teammates to score as well.
It was not until the end of January, the 31st to be exact, that Nani emerged from the shadows of the United bench and realize his potential in the Reds’ 3-1 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates.
Since then, Nani has taken his game to a whole other level, and he is top of the Premier League in assists, but some may have seen how much Portuguese winger has grown against Stoke.
In the first-half, he was clipped by a Stoke defender, and the Nani of old would have rolled around like he was shot 17-times by a machine gun, but, instead, he got up and tried tracking the run of the culprit.
As impressive as that was, Nani might be taking a back seat to one of the biggest breaths of fresh air to hit Old Trafford since 1996.
Hernandez has taken England by storm since Sir Alex signed him last April, and the young Mexican has showing the supporters he is ready to etch his name in United’ folklore.
Not since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has Sir Alex seen such a good finisher of the ball, but yet a gentleman on and off the field.
Playing third fiddle to both Berbatov and Wayne Rooney, Chicharito has quickly established himself as a threat to both of their first team places with some expert finishing and willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good the team, which can only benefit United in the long run.
With another match with an arch-rival in the FA Cup Third Round on the horizon, Sir Alex Ferguson will be very best-satisfied how his Manchester United has matured in just over a year’s time.