Manchester United get that losing feeling

Posted by Mark Payne

Robin van Persie battle Stoke UnitedPA PhotosMan Utd goal scorer Robin van Persie battles for the ball at Stoke.

Shortly after Eric Cantona signed for Manchester United in 1992, I remember watching the side at Chelsea. In the stands that day there was much discussion about how the other players had caught 'flick-itis', a condition that caused them to try the same flicks and tricks the Frenchman might.

The sight of Mike Phelan attempting back heels at Stamford Bridge will live long in the memory. But it was evidence of the team trying to impress their new colleague. As an aside, "We've got that Michael Phelan", sung to the tune of the Righteous Brothers' "You've lost that loving feeling" remains a favourite chant from the era.

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There was evidence of a similar upping of standards in the 1-2 defeat against Stoke as the team started to put together the quick one-touch passes they have been shy of doing so far in the season. It made for better football and Juan Mata was at heart of United's play from his right-sided berth.

United's first decent chance fell to Wayne Rooney, who, left with a yard of space in the box, thrashed a left-footed volley just wide. It followed some build up play that suggested the Manchester United short-passing machine was beginning to come together.

The Premier League is somewhat ridiculous this year with six points separating the bottom ten teams. That leaves effectively half the division fighting relegation and rolling their sleeves up for a battle once a week. Stoke are such a team and that had the effect of giving this match some real intensity during the opening stages.

This, rather sadly, is what United have in store for the rest of the campaign. Barring a highly unlikely triumph in the Champions League, the current Premier League champions will spend the rest of their season slugging it out with teams fighting for their lives in an attempt to reach fourth place.

Hailed as "the best front three in the league" by David Moyes, Juan Mata, Robin van Persie were able to start alongside Wayne Rooney. Unfortunately, this triple-headed attacking beast was up against a motivated Stoke team and a freakish wind.

As half-time approached both sides had seen several decent deliveries into the box blown away from their targets and to obscure safety. It was a frustrating sight and left game plans torn up on the floor.

Former Liverpool man Charlie Adam lined up a free kick on the 40th minute and saw his poor effort bounce off Michael Carrick's knee and deflect past David de Gea into the United net. The goal could only have been luckier if it had been turned over the line by a leprechaun.

Seconds later, Phil Jones fell heavily after a clash of heads and United were forced to replace their second defender of the afternoon; Johnny Evans had left clutching a hamstring after eight minutes. Moyes grimaced. What should have been a glorious attacking moment had become another uphill battle. It seems as though nothing will be straightforward for the champions this year.

Nonetheless, it was the attack that dug United out of trouble, and it didn't take long to do so. With Rooney dropping back to midfield, no sooner had the teams returned after the break than Mata had found Van Persie, who scored his second goal in two games since returning from injury with a classy left-foot finish.

The reprieve was brief. Adam stepped up again and unleashed the kind of left-footed curler into the top corner that would have made Rivelino proud. Rain started to accompany the wind and the city of Stoke began to live up to its reputation.

It seemed that everything was against United. Two defenders went out injured, the elements were atrocious and the referee was more than generous to Stoke's Jonathan Walters when he tried to decapitate Chris Smalling in the 50th minute. In addition, United hit the bar in the 90th minute and couldn't score from the ensuing scramble either.

But the simple fact of the matter is Manchester United should be beating teams in the bottom three. They didn't, and that makes it another uncomfortable week for all concerned. The mood might have brightened around Old Trafford with Mata's arrival, and the team dug in to show some fight here, but the results continue to frustrate.

Follow Mark on Twitter at www.twitter.com/markjpayne

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