Manchester United 3 Stoke City 0: Paul Pogba masterclass brings swagger back
He has the confidence, the ability and the swagger to play for Manchester United. But enough of Alexis Sanchez. This was Paul Pogba’s night – and he also possesses those formidable qualities – with the United midfielder dominating a sorry Stoke side.
Plucky Potters? Not against Pogba who provided two clever assists and ran the game as United consolidated themselves in second place in the Premier League and cut Manchester City’s lead to 12 points.
United have beaten City in the race to sign Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal or, rather, City have pulled out of that contest believing the finances just do not stack up and, barring a late intervention from Chelsea, it appears the Chilean forward will be another of Pogba’s team-mates hoping to profit from his sharp creativity.
For United’s fans there is the tantalising vision of Pogba in a free role – finally Jose Mourinho has come to realise that is the best use of him – opening up defences for the alert movement and relentlessness of Sanchez and the bludgeoning power of Romelu Lukaku.
Suddenly, they will hope, the future looks brighter for them as they continue that chase to reduce City’s dominance, to fend off Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, and to give themselves momentum going into the remainder of this season and the next campaign.
Whether they will face Stoke in the Premier League again next season remains to be seen. Stoke are in the relegation places but, finally, they appointed a successor to Mark Hughes and hours later Paul Lambert took his place in the Old Trafford directors’ box, watching on as caretaker Eddie Niedzwiecki, for his one game in charge, produced a demob-happy coaching performance by putting out an attacking team and opening up the game.
It worked only in that it created chances – and Stoke did that, and it would have been interesting had they drawn level in the first-half, when just a goal down, as surely they should have done – but not in defending. The three goals conceded here mean, in fact, that Stoke have become the first team in any of Europe’s top five leagues to let in 50 goals this season. With 23 matches played that is more than two a game – not good enough for a team that spent heavily in bringing in defenders last summer.
Lambert has work to do. But then he knew that. And he also knew that this was, in all probability, little more than a fixture to fulfil. Damage had to be limited and, in that, they owed a debt again to their goalkeeper Jack Butland who once more produced a series of saves even if he was quickly beaten.
Pogba was central to it. He collected possession, after some fine build-up play, and ran across the face of the penalty area before pushing the ball out wide to Antonio Valencia. The United captain was returning, after four weeks out with a hamstring injury, and celebrated by cutting inside and arcing a left-foot shot (yes, left foot from Valencia) around Butland from just inside the area. It was a superb strike; a well-worked goal.
Cue the cameras cutting to Lambert, attempting to elicit a response. The Scot buried his head in his coat – but that was more to do with responding to the cold, the hail and the swirling rain. But there was no downpour on his new team. Instead they carved United open. There was an overhead kick from Xherdan Shaqiri, held by David De Gea, and then Stephen Ireland – making his first league start in almost two years – spurned two chances. He snatched at both, dragging his shots wide, when he had space and time to do better.
Stoke came closest of all when their new signing, Austrian full-back Moritz Bauer, on his debut, hoisted a high cross into the area and Peter Crouch beat De Gea to it. The ball dropped to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who seemed certain to score, only for his half-volley to be deflected over the cross-bar by a lunging Phil Jones.
“I didn’t like the first half. I only liked the two amazing goals,” Mourinho later said, and United’s second was as good as their first with Lukaku running down the right, turning the ball back inside to Pogba who had the presence of mind and vision to move it across goal, with a ‘no-look pass’, where it was met by Anthony Martial who struck a precise first-time, side-footed shot that curled around Butland and high into the net.
As a contest, it was over. Stoke appeared dispirited. It was a question, then, of how many United would score but – instead – they were wasteful. Firstly Pogba almost claimed his third assist when he intercepted a sloppy pass by Kurt Zouma and stabbed the ball through to Martial. Butland blocked. Then Martial wriggled clear only for Butland to deny him, again, before Juan Mata turned the ball wide and, soon after, shot over.
Butland thwarted Lukaku with his legs but was finally beaten by the striker when Jesse Lingard broke, Martial fired the ball into the Belgium international and the Stoke defenders stood off as he picked his spot and drilled his shot low inside the post.
There should have been a goal back when substitute Mame Biram Diouf chested down Shaqiri’s flighted pass only for De Gea to block his first shot, and the former United forward to send his second into the side-netting. There would be no consolation.