Manchester United returned from Tokyo as Champions of the world but were nearly taught a lesson in the basics of football at the Britannia Stadium this Boxing Day. United emerged victorious with a late goal from Carlos Tevez in a fractious and ill-tempered local derby with Stoke City after Andy Wilkinson's sending off.
United can count themselves lucky that it was a player in red and white stripes who recieved his marching orders after both Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo had done their best to earn straight reds themselves. Rooney could easily have been dismissed for aiming an elbow at Abdoulaye Faye, which the referee chose to ignore, and Ronaldo could similarly have been punished after kicking out at Wilkinson minutes before the Stoke man retaliated.
United managed to put their numerical advantage to the good by sending on Dimitar Berbatov whose bag of tricks made an immediate difference with one sublime flick setting up Rooney for a narrowly wide drive. The game looked to be petering out before Berbatov again teed the ball up from a Gary Neville cross before poking the ball across the goal for Tevez to drive home. The relief was palpable and only after the goal did the United support begin to find voice, before they had surely been fearing their side's third stalemate of the season.
The pace of the game was frantic from the start with Stoke closing down every United move at lightening speed in an attempt to expose the weariness of a team that had just flown half-way across the world. Inspirational centre-half Rio Ferdinand was ruled out shortly before kick off with a back strain so 19-yr-old Johnny Evans was called on to replace him and looked unprepared for the contest. Despite his encouraging displays in other matches, Evans was exposed on more than one occasion and were it not for the presence of the bruising Nemanja Vidic and a resurgent Gary Neville his mistakes could have been costly.
The second half saw an even match degenerate with increasingly frayed tempers. United were clearly becoming frustrated and the theatrics of some had got the home players riled. Several cards were shown and a red was inevitable after Wilkinson swept Ronaldo away for his second bookable offence. All that was left was for a Berbatov cameo and Tevez's second goal of the season. After a tough afternoon a drowsy Manchester United are now back at home and still very much in the title race.