United fans' Christmas cheer takes team past Stoke

Posted by Mark Payne

John Peters/Man Utd/Getty ImagesAshley Young's 62nd goal helped pace Manchester United into the Capital One Cup semifinals.

Manchester United overcame a combination of Stoke City, the elements and a waterlogged pitch to progress to the semifinals of the League Cup after a 2-0 victory at the Britannia Stadium. The match was no oil painting, but two magnificent goals and an uplifting performance by the travelling support carried United through.

- Report: Stoke 0-2 Manchester United

The weather in Stoke was something to take seriously and managed to interrupt play for 10 first-half minutes at the Britannia. The wind was bending the corner flags unreasonably to start, when all of a sudden the hail took on biblical proportions. Within a few seconds, visibility dropped to about five yards and referee Mark Clattenburg pulled the teams off the pitch.

But the weather was not enough to discourage the fans who were in full voice throughout. United's allocation ran through their full Christmas repertoire and were hailing players past and present throughout the match. It was the kind of support that can only lift the team, and it was the same at Villa Park on Sunday. In some ways, this match was won on the terraces.

The sides returned to a pitch covered with water that stopped the ball from bouncing and disjointed the match. Even before the heavens opened, the game was looking scrappy, United's best chance having fallen to Ashley Young on the right, who drove his effort into the side-netting.

David Moyes presented a much-shuffled team, even without room on the bench for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. After starting the first six games for the new manager, the old centre-back pairing is headed for the scrapheap, it seems; at least Ferdinand seems likely to be.

Wayne Rooney, apparently injured, was also absent and Danny Welbeck started up front in search of United's first ever cup tie win against Stoke. There was also a start for Anderson, who is running out of chances. Moyes surely won't have as much patience with him as Sir Alex Ferguson. Unsurprisingly, the chance was not taken. His night’s work finished after 58 minutes.

The game was not a work of art, but Anderson's replacement, Chicharito Hernandez, made his presence felt immediately. Young burst forward from midfield before playing a one-two with the Mexican and rifling the return into the roof of the net. It was a brutal strike from an overly criticized player. His hailing by United's excellent travelling support was raucous and unconditional.

The goal put some swagger into United's play and they enjoyed 70 percent possession for the first 20 minutes of the second half. But that pressure was not turned into another goal. Instead, Stoke came back and Stephen Ireland started to cause problems with his distribution outmaneuvering United's defence on a couple of occasions. Ryan Shawcross should certainly have scored when Chris Smalling was caught napping after 70 minutes.

United kept their calm and continued to build play patiently and Patrice Evra's goal was an exquisite strike. He sauntered into the box like Thierry Henry might have done before curling a shot into the top of the goal with his right foot. The diminutive left-back allowed himself a wry smile; he was not the only one.

When Darren Fletcher took the field for his second appearance on the comeback trail, he was hailed like a returning king. United were closing out the game and Stoke had given up any pretence of resistance with Evra's goal. The Scot will be needed in more testing games than this if United are to challenge for trophies, but he can only feel appreciated after his reception here.

Manchester United have now lodged three victories on the trot and progressed in two cup competitions. They are joined by West Ham, Sunderland and the rampant Manchester City in the semis. Wherever they go, their support is sure to make its presence felt. And they can hack a wet Wednesday night in Stoke, too.

Mark Payne is the author of "Fergie's Last Stand," now available in paperback.

Follow him on Twitter @MarkJPayne.

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