They say absence makes the heart grow fonder but Javier Hernández made sure Wayne Rooney was as far as possible from Manchester United minds here. At the end of a tumultuous week at Old Trafford it seemed fitting that the Mexican, the man whose place Rooney would most likely have taken had he been fit, should have scored the two goals that secured United's first away win in the Premier League this season.
It was a wonderful contribution and it provided further confirmation of Hernández's burgeoning talent, as well as giving Rooney a not-so-gentle reminder that not all signings need to be A-list superstars. Hernández, lest it be forgotten, cost United £6m in the summer – or, to put it another way, as much as Rooney will earn in about seven months of his new contract. With five goals to his name this season – four more than Rooney – the Mexican is emerging as a key player.
How much Rooney saw of this match from his sunbed in Dubai is unclear but after all the headlines he has generated over the past week this felt like a hugely significant win for United, especially as they once again squandered a lead when Tuncay Sanli came off the bench to score a splendid equaliser for Stoke City, eight minutes from time. Hernández, however, showed his predatory instincts four minutes later when he stabbed home Patrice Evra's mishit shot.
United deserved the three points on the balance of play and chances created but Stoke were entitled to question how different the outcome might have been had Andre Marriner, the referee, not been so lenient with Gary Neville in the first half. Neville had been booked for a foul on Matthew Etherington, who was giving him a torrid time, when he scythed the winger down in full flight, three minutes before the interval. Stoke players and fans called for a second yellow card but Marriner only awarded a free-kick.
The two sides agreed that it was a poor decision. Neville, who was unsurprisingly withdrawn at half-time, admitted that he had been fortunate to avoid marking his 600th appearance for the club with a red card. Tony Pulis suggested that Marriner would have had a much different take on the incident if the roles were reversed.
The Stoke manager said: "Let me ask you, if that was a Stoke City player at Old Trafford and [he] committed two fouls like that, what do you think would have happened?"
Pulis was also annoyed by the poor marking that allowed Hernández to give Stoke a taste of their own medicine by scoring from a set piece in the 27th minute. The build-up was simple as Nani played a short corner to Evra before crossing towards the back post for Nemanja Vidic to head back across goal, but the finish was breathtaking. Hernández had his back to goal but, jumping and twisting in the air, he headed powerfully past Thomas Sorensen.
United, who were subjected to chants from the Stoke supporters of "You're shit, Rooney knows you are", were in control of the game and the reprieve Neville received just before half-time reinforced the feeling that this was destined to be their day. Stoke were seeing little of the ball and on the few occasions when they did break forward with purpose, Kenwyne Jones and Jon Walters could make little impression up against Rio Ferdinand and Vidic.
Edwin van der Sar had not been seriously troubled in the United goal and it was tempting to wonder whether it would have stayed that way had Paul Scholes not carelessly given away possession in the 82nd minute. After a swift exchanges of passes Marc Wilson picked out Tuncay on the right, from where the Turkish player cut inside Evra with embarrassing ease before sweeping a sublime left-footed shot over Van der Sar and into the top corner. Suddenly, it was game on.
Having seen his side allow six points to slip this season from winning positions, Ferguson admitted that he was thinking "not again" as Tuncay wheeled away to celebrate Stoke's first goal against United in five Premier League matches. As well as cursing Scholes's carelessness, the United manager must have been ruing the moment earlier in the second half when Hernández connected with Dimitar Bervatov's excellent cross only to steer a volley agonisingly wide of the post.
United were unable to respond in a similar situation against West Bromwich Albion the previous weekend but this time Ferguson's players had an answer. Scholes flicked on Berbatov's cross and when Evra screwed the ball across goal, Hernández was on hand to convert from no more than five yards. There were raucous celebrations as United fans spilled on to the pitch to join Hernández and his team-mates. Rooney was out of sight and out of mind.
Man of the match Javier Hernández (Manchester United)
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