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United overturn savage Stoke
Iain Macintosh Your English Kaki
Sun, Dec 28, 2008
The New Paper

WELCOME back to England, Fergie.

You can't get much further away from a sultry evening at the Yokohama than The Britannia Stadium on Boxing Day and you can bet that the wily old Scotsman would have preferred to have been anywhere but here.

If Manchester United's players had been spoiled by the first-class travel and five-star hotels that accompanied their World Club Sepp Blatter-Bowl Championship, they were bought crashing down to earth by the reception that met them back in the United Kingdom.

The Britannia Stadium is a little corner of England that time forgot. It's a throwback to the days before prawn sandwiches and fairweather fans, a living museum of passion, fury, mud, sweat and elbows.

Tony Pulis has lifted Stoke City up into the Premier League with tactics that make Sam Allardyce look like Rinus Michels and he's keeping them there with the help of every trick in the book, not to mention a few that he's scribbled into the margins himself.

This was new football aganst old football, and old football was in a really bad mood.

This wasn't so much Boxing Day for Manchester United, as it was Outdoor Cage-Fighting Day.

Stoke City fought for every ball and probed their guests with a succession of long punts that troubled stand-in centre-back Johnny Evans.

If it was possible to hear anything over the roar of their fans, you might have heard the dull thump of bone on bone as Stoke made every effort to get ball and man wherever possible.

For 70 bruising minutes, it seemed that brute force might be enough, but Andy Wilkinson's crude slash at Cristiano Ronaldo's ankles could only be punished with a red card.

If anything, it was a suprise that the first dismissal had taken so long. Wilkinson, inevitably, was applauded off the field.

The home fans were having the time of their lives with Ronaldo, booing and jeering him relentlessly and celebrating every assault on him as if it was a goal.

Stoke City have spent a long time in the lower divisions and the fans down there despise the Premier League.

They hate the players, the wages, the arrogance and the hype and they abhor Ronaldo more than anyone else, seeing him as a symbol of everything that is wrong with the game.

The Portuguese star has picked up more than his fair share of abuse from the stands, but even he seemed taken aback by the ferocity of these supporters.

Sir Alex Ferguson had been rightly wary about this fixture, but he has been to harder places than this in the past and prevailed.

Pressure

His decision to replace John O'Shea with Dimitar Berbatov gave Stoke a little too much to worry about and their brief spell of second-half pressure was ended by the dismissal of Wilkinson.

Stoke may be one of the most hard-working teams in the Premier League, but Carlos Tevez can match them all for effort and it was fitting that he should strike home the winning goal, powering in a fine pass from Berbatov with seven minutes left.

This is how Premier League titles are won.

Not by big wins at home, but by hard-fought victories at places like the Britannia Stadium.

Manchester United are better than anyone at getting points from games like these.

In all the time they were away, not one of their rivals could win a game of football and that will cost them in 2009.

Ferguson's side is back.

Back in England and back in the title race and it will take more than a few elbows to stop them this season.
 

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