Carlos Tevez’s late winner saw Manchester United put the exertions of winning the Club World Cup in Japan behind them as they maintained their Premier League title bid with a 1-0 win away to Stoke City.
For long periods Sir Alex Ferguson’s side looked weary after their journey to the Far East. But the 72nd minute sending off of Stoke full-back Andy Wilkinson handed them an unexpected lifeline and ultimately gifted United the three points.
United’s cause wasn’t helped by the last minute withdrawal of Rio Ferdinand who suffered a recurrence of a back injury and forced Ferguson to draft in Jonny Evans alongside Nemanja Vidic.
And the effects of the enforced change were almost immediately felt, as Stoke took just 60 seconds to exploit the uncertainty in the reshuffled United back-four.
Richard Cresswell’s hopelessly sliced shot shouldn’t have caused any problems, but Evans failed to react, allowing Ricardo Fuller to sneak in and the Stoke striker should have done better after being gifted a clear shot on goal.
Tony Pulis’ side continued to unsettle the visitors, with Fuller in particular causing problems.
By contrast, United looked off the pace and struggled to make significant inroads against a well-organized defense, who handled the threat of Wayne Rooney and Tevez with ease during the opening 45 minutes.
In fact, United managed just one effort on target during a frustrating first half, a near-post header from Rooney that was well saved by Stoke keeper Thomas Sorensen.
The last time United visited Stoke in a league game was on Boxing Day 24 years previously when the home side claimed a 2-1 victory.
While there seemed little chance of a repeat scoreline, Ferguson’s side reached the interval knowing they would have to improve considerably if they were to gain the victory that would increase the pressure on Liverpool, Chelsea and Aston Villa, who all started the day above them in the table.
The early second-half signs were promising, with Tevez and Paul Scholes both testing Sorensen, but, after that initial flurry, United appeared to run out of ideas and allowed Stoke to work their way back into the game.
The visitors’ frustration was showing with Rooney fortunate to escape punishment for an apparent elbow on Abdoulaye Faye minutes before Ronaldo kicked out at Wilkinson.
Ronaldo was a shadow of his usual self and appeared to be completely frustrated at his inability to have an impact on the game.
But he still managed to wind Wilkinson up to such an extent the Stoke full-back completely lost his head and dived into a stupid tackle from behind to earn a second yellow card and hand United a crucial advantage during the final minutes of the game.
Now it was a case of whether Stoke could hang for a draw.
And seven minutes from time they finally cracked.
United substitute Dimitar Berbatov produced a sublime turn to create space in the Stoke penalty area and set up Tevez for the close range strike that could prove crucial when the title is finally decided.