Manchester United came through a test of character to draw 1-1 at Stoke City in the first Premier League game of 2015 on New Year’s Day.
Louis van Gaal’s side had to bounce back from the shock of falling behind to a second-minute goal from their former defender Ryan Shawcross at the Britannia Stadium.
And they had to show great resilience to stretch their unbeaten record to 10 matches after Radamel Falcao had hauled them back on level terms with an opportunistic goal.
United may look back on this as a point gained rather than two dropped at a windswept stadium where the home side tend to make things uncomfortable for visitors.
Despite the fact that Stoke were robbed of their main attacking threat, Bojan Krkic, who was ruled out by injury, Mark Hughes’s men quickly imposed themselves.
United were clearly flustered by it and they were found wanting defensively when the home side were awarded a right-wing corner following honest endeavour by Steven Nzonzi.
Peter Crouch was picked out at the far post by Marko Arnautovic’s deep ball into the box and his goal-bound header was hooked into the roof of the net by the grateful Shawcross.
Although United composed themselves after the early shock by claiming the lion’s share of possession, their final ball often let them down.
United captain Wayne Rooney fired a 30-yard free-kick off target after he had been fouled by Nzonzi.
The fragile nature of United’s defending was exposed again when their former striker Mame Biram Diouf outmuscled a hesitant Jonny Evans, only to shape his left-foot shot wide of the left-hand upright.
– Crouch penalty appeal –
It proved to be a decisive moment in the contest because rather than finding themselves two goals down, United were back on level terms seven minutes later.
Like Stoke had done in the second minute, United secured their equaliser by way of a well-worked corner.
Michael Carrick got the faintest of touches to Rooney’s delivery from the left-hand side and the ever-alert Falcao finished with style from close range.
Neither side managed to carve out another clear-cut chance before half-time, although Falcao’s control let him down at a crucial moment when he threatened to break onto a through-ball from Ashley Young.
The typically wild Britannia conditions did not help either side as they endeavoured to build upon what had been a promising first half.
Van Gaal attempted to improve his side’s display with a double substitution, sending on Ander Herrera and Adnan Januzaj for Falcao and Luke Shaw, but it had the unintended effect of energising the home side.
United were still adjusting to the changes when Phil Jones headed the ball narrowly wide of his own goal from Jon Walters’s right-wing cross.
Stoke then had furious appeals for a penalty waved away by referee Michael Oliver when Chris Smalling appeared to block a Crouch header with his arm.
There was even more good fortune for United when Crouch met Arnautovic’s free-kick with a glancing header that bounced back off a post and they managed to scramble the ball away in the melee that followed.
United’s best moment of the half came when when van Persie instinctively brought down Juan Mata’s chipped ball on his chest and sent a delicate lob over the stranded Asmir Begovic but inches wide of the far post.
Stoke pressed hard for a winner, while Young was forced off with an apparent hamstring injury, but van Gaal’s team held firm to claim a point that consolidated their top-four position.