Vishakh’s latest “The Manchester Musings” column.
Saturday the 21st of January started quite well for United fans worldwide, as rivals Liverpool suffered a shock defeat against Swansea at Anfield.
With the late kick-off being Manchester City vs Tottenham, teams were guaranteed to drop more points – a victory at the bet365 stadium in Stoke would see United temporarily move out of 6th place in the quest for the Champions League.
Jose Mourinho named an altered team, bringing in Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Chris Smalling, and Daley Blind.
Fellaini and Smalling would have been included to counter against the height threat that Stoke pose, while Blind continued rotating with Darmian.
Anthony Martial was left out of the 18 altogether, with one eye on Thursday’s semi final second leg at Hull presumably.
The game started off slowly, with neither team really able to threaten. It was a scrappy game with Stoke pressing really quickly, putting United under pressure.
This was led particularly from the front, with Peter Crouch/Marko Arnautovic/Joe Allen/Xherdan Shaqiri.
The first goal came from an aggressive press, with Stoke countering.
Joe Allen played the ball into the channel for Arnautovic, who held it up long enough to wait for Erik Pieters underlapping run from left-back.
Pieters found himself free with Juan Mata not tracking him well, and the resulting cross was hit across the box.
Unfortunately, it clipped Matas outstretched foot, hit De Gea, and went into the net for an own goal.
United reacted really well to the goal, by controlling the ball and taking the sting/momentum out of the game.
They really should have made it level – on the half hour mark, Ibrahimovic peeled away from his centre back and was played through on goal by Pogba.
The Swedish striker could have scored, but chose to square it to Juan Mata.
On his left foot, everyone expected the Spanish midfielder to hit the back of the net, but from six yards out Mata ended up leaning back and skying it.
It was a big chance, and one that could have changed the state of the game. United continued to increase the pressure though, and one felt a goal was coming.
Paul Pogba wriggled himself free from a Daley Blind corner, but struck his volley into the ground – it was straight at Lee Grant and palmed away from danger.
At halftime it was still Stoke 1-0 United, but United were creating chances.
Piling on the pressure
The second half started the same way, with United starting to really turn the screw.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan began to play in a more central position, and his running at the defence really caused problems.
One such run was then followed by a lay off to Ibrahimovic, but his shot was feeble and dribbled harmlessly past the post.
United made attacking change after attacking change – Rooney, Rashford, and Lingard were all brought on.
Rashford particularly caused Glen Johnson a torrid time, but knocking the ball past him and turning on the boosters.
Chances were created, but the next clear cut one came on the 75th minute.
A Valencia cross was chested down by the teenager, but he looked to place the ball into the top corner and sent it over.
Lingard also had a long shot that cracked the crossbar, and it began to look like it was not United’s day.
Stoke were also content to sit back and defend for their lives, not even looking threatening on the counter.
Rooney the savior
With almost the last kick of the game, Marcus Rashford won a free-kick just outside the box on the left hand side.
It was in the perfect area to aim for the far post, and hope that nobody gets on the end of it and it snuck into the far corner.
Wayne Rooney stepped up, and only the most optimistic United fan would have said they expected a goal.
The much-maligned Englishman ended up curling the ball into the far corner, true postage stamp territory.
It was also a historic goal, as he broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s United goal scoring record with 250 United goals.
A good point for United
While it was not enough for the three points, it was still a good point for United.
4 points behind Liverpool and two points behind City, it is still in their hands. The unbeaten run continues as well, ahead of cup fixtures vs Hull and Wigan.
Man of the Match: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Wayne Rooney, record-breaker
Wayne Rooney is now the all-time leading goalscorer for England and Manchester United, an incredible achievement.
When he first signed for United, most fans would have snatched your hand off for 250 club goals.
However, it is unfortunate that Rooney’s career will only really be appreciated in hindsight for what it was.
Past his peak
It is no secret that he has not been anywhere close to his peak for about three years now.
The 2009-2011 seasons were probably peak Wayne Rooney, where he was in an incredible that reached the Champions League final twice in three years.
Rooney also scored 34 goals in 2010, with the majority of them being from Antonio Valencia assists.
The subsequent years were full of controversy mixed with brilliance. For the World Cup 2010 campaign, there was the goal of the season winner at home vs City.
Rooney continued to be the fulcrum of the side, and playing in a shadow striker role, he led the team on the field.
In the post Sir-Alex world at Old Trafford, it seemed like both David Moyes/Louis Van Gaal were too deferential to their captain, where Rooney was an automatic selection and could do no harm.
He did not help himself either, with a series of uninspiring performances at striker, attacking midfield, or centre midfield.
Fans began to realise it was not the same Rooney of old, and called for him to be dropped/sold.
In hindsight, a spell on the bench would have been beneficial if it coincided with a period of good form – unlike what Louis Van Gaal attempted last December.
Playing in a role fans demanded him to be in
This year’s Rooney has been what most fans have been asking for – a squad player who uses his experience to guide the team around him.
Not an automatic starter (and no chance with Ibrahimovic in such form), but determined to contribute.
4 goals so far this season is a poor return from Rooney, but he has naturally scored more goals in the second halves of seasons.
United fans will be hoping it continues in 2017 in the pursuit of the top 4.
Written by Vishakh Chandrasekhar
Follow Vishakh on Twitter @VishC24
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