Manchester United ended their long wait for a first-half goal at home as they further eased the pressure on Louis van Gaal with a comfortable 3-0 Premier League win over Stoke City on Tuesday.
United, who had not netted in the opening 45 minutes at Old Trafford since a 2-1 Champions League victory over Wolfsburg on September 30, got back to winning ways in the league in fine style.
Van Gaal’s men responded to their home defeat to Southampton with a 3-1 win at Derby County in the FA Cup and carried the momentum into the visit of Stoke – whose recent disappointing form continued.
Stoke won the reverse fixture on Boxing Day 2-0, but this encounter represented a complete sea change from the one at the Britannia Stadium, with Jesse Lingard needing just 14 minutes to head United in front.
Nine minutes later United were 2-0 up thanks to Anthony Martial’s superb finish and there proved to be no way back for a Stoke side that has won only one of their last five league matches.
Skipper Wayne Rooney put the game beyond doubt with a simple strike in the 53rd minute as United shook off their boring tag to boost hopes they can finish in the top four.
United started brightly and finally broke their first-half duck courtesy of Lingard, who capitalised on sloppy Stoke defending to turn home Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s low-left wing cross with a diving header.
Martial wasted a decent opportunity to double the lead by shooting into the side-netting but quickly atoned for that miss in stunning fashion as he finished off a wonderfully worked attacking move, collecting a magnificent cross-field ball from Rooney and curling into the top-right corner.
Stoke’s cause was dealt a further blow after half-an-hour when Philipp Wollscheid was withdrawn due to injury and replaced by Phil Bardsley.
The visitors almost pulled one back four minutes later when Jonathan Walters shot narrowly over from close-range as United failed to deal with a corner.
However, Stoke were fortunate not to fall 3-0 behind as Juan Mata spurned a glorious chance, heading a cross from Matteo Darmian – in as one of two changes made by Van Gaal – off target with the goal at his mercy.
United looked to have made it 3-0 five minutes into the second half when Rooney fired past Jack Butland, but the England captain was ruled to have been over zealous in shoving Glen Johnson off the ball as he attempted to latch on to Martial’s pass.
But the boos that greeted referee Roger East’s decision soon turned to further United cheers.
Daley Blind split the Stoke midfield with an excellent ball for Mata, who fed it through to Martial on the left, with the former Monaco man then squaring for Rooney to tap in his 99th Premier League goal at OId Trafford.
The hosts were unable to add any further gloss to the scoreline but Marouane Fellaini’s late substitution through injury proved the only blot on an impressive performance, which should earn Van Gaal’s some respite from his more vocal critics.