Beginnings, as they know very well in Manchester, are not everything. The sight of City opening last season with 10 straight wins led to suggestions that Pep Guardiola’s first season at the Etihad Stadium would be as comfortable as those at the Allianz Arena. In 1985 Mark Hughes was part of a United side that won its first 10 games but still finished fourth, a dozen points behind Liverpool. Seven years later, they took one point from their opening three games and were the Premier League’s first champions come May.
This encounter, however, felt significant. Manchester United have not won a league game in the Potteries since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, when Hughes strengthened Stoke to the extent that the club boasted more Champions League winners than English football’s biggest side.
Manchester United did not win but their performance here was a significant upgrade on the 1-1 draw in January when Wayne Rooney’s free-kick not only took him past Sir Bobby Charlton as United’s record goalscorer but salvaged an improbable point for Jose Mourinho.
This was a thrilling encounter between two teams who attacked rather better than they defended. Each side scored a lovely goal and conceded from a soft set-piece on an evening that Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will remember forever.
These were the Cameroon striker’s first goals for Stoke and came after an international break that saw him endure a 4-0 thrashing by Nigeria in a World Cup qualifier.
His opening goal was either the product of some beautiful football or some crass defending depending on your point of view. From his seat in the BT studio, Rio Ferdinand was more inclined to wonder why Phil Jones had not cut out Mame Diouf’s cross or why Eric Bailly was out of position when Choupo-Moting drove in to meet it. “These days clubs want defenders who are good on the ball rather than ones who can defend,” said Ferdinand with the old pro’s weary air, although this was precisely the accusation levelled at him when England’s most elegant defender wore a Manchester United shirt.
United’s players celebrate their equaliser (Getty)
Choupo-Moting broke through with the interval beckoning and, if Stoke could nurse that lead through to half-time, the pressure on Manchester United would be racked up. They held it for 161 seconds. The equaliser was scored by Marcus Rashford, who knew precious little about it, but it owed everything to Nemanja Matic’s leap to guide Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s corner towards Paul Pogba.
The Frenchman’s header ricocheted off Rashford and into the net. Stoke’s players protested for a foul but what would have underpinned their anger was the knowledge they had conceded so softly and stupidly.
Choupo-Moting scores his second for Stoke (Getty)
The young Mancunian, however, deserved to be on the scoresheet. Earlier, he had been put through by a beautiful, surgical 20-yard pass from Bailly, which was better than the average delivery you might expect from a centre-half. Jack Butland held his nerve and saved with his feet.
The Stoke keeper could only parry the shot from Romelu Lukaku that put Manchester United ahead a dozen minutes after the restart and the Belgian reacted quicker than the Dutch defender, Bruno Martins Indi, to devour the rebound.
Like United’s first, it was the man who made the goal rather, than the man who scored, who deserved the applause. Mkhitaryan’s lovely reverse pass was as good in its way as Darren Fletcher’s cross to Diouf, standing in the one slash of sunshine left in the stadium, that set up Stoke’s opener.
Lukaku looked to have secured United all three points (Getty)
Again, it was a lead that did not last long and again it fell to a corner. The set piece had been won by a fabulous falling volley from Jese that David de Gea had tipped over one-handed with astonishing athleticism. Once more, there were question marks over Jones as the defender slipped while challenging Choupo-Moting, whose header crashed into the net beneath the 3,000 who had travelled down the M6 from Manchester.
Mourinho would point to United’s greater weight of possession, the greater number of chances and the fact that Lukaku should have driven Anthony Martial’s ball emphatically past Butland to win the game. However, come May when beginnings are proven not to be everything, this might count as a very good draw,
Stoke City: Butland; Zouma, Cameron (Martins Indi ht), Wimmer; Diouf, Fletcher, Allen, Pieters; Shaqiri, Jese (Berahino 76), Choupo-Moting. Substitutes: Grant (g), Tymon, Adam, Crouch, Ramadan.
Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Jones, Darmian; Herrera (Martial 72), Pogba, Matic; Mkhitaryan (Lingard 84), Lukaku, Rashford (Mata 72). Substitutes: Romero (g), Smalling, Carrick, Blind.