Manchester United's 100% record came to an end at a ground where they have always found it hard but had never previously dropped any Premier League points, Peter Crouch's arrival proving the added ingredient Stoke have been missing with a valuable equaliser. Though Ryan Giggs had a snatched opportunity to claim all three points right at the death, that would have been harsh on a Stoke side who deserved something. Whisper it quietly, but with slightly better finishing from their goalscorer and new hero, Stoke could have taken a lot more.
"We should probably have won, we looked to have goals in us, but at least we took a step forward and we're happy with that," Stoke's assistant manager David Kemp said. "This is the first time we've taken anything off United. They were the only Premier League side we hadn't matched, so this is a great result for us."
Sir Alex Ferguson is of the opinion that setting a new record for the best start to a season is of little importance in any case, as long as his side finish on top of the pile when the league campaign ends. There speaks a man who knows that the season before he arrived in Manchester, Ron Atkinson's United set off like a train to achieve a record 10 wins in their first 10 games, only to finish in fourth place, not only behind Liverpool but Everton and West Ham as well.
In the circumstances United were glad of just a point. They had to make a couple of last-minute adjustments before the game and a third almost immediately after kick-off. Wayne Rooney's absence through a hamstring strain will not have been a complete surprise to anyone following his wife's tweets the previous evening, and Michael Owen will not have been that surprised either to find Dimitar Berbatov asked to deputise. The visitors also lost Jonny Evans to an injury sustained warming up, and Antonio Valencia once again found himself pressed into service at right-back, where he appeared in the Carling Cup game at Leeds in midweek. Four minutes into the game Javier Hernández required treatment after going down in the area to a tackle from behind by Jonathan Woodgate, and though Peter Walton was probably right in deciding that the defender had played the ball and the challenge was fair, the Mexican was unable to continue and after playing with nine outfielders for a few minutes United eventually sent Owen on.
By that stage in the game Stoke had already produced three Rory Delap long throws and a couple of corners. David de Gea dealt with the throws adequately, if not entirely convincingly, but the United defence as a whole had a let-off when Matthew Etherington's second corner found Crouch at the far post and the striker missed the target with a free header from close range. Stoke were left regretting that miss when Nani put the visitors ahead with an elegant opening goal just before the half hour, playing a one-two with Darren Fletcher to wrongfoot Woodgate and slip a low shot past Asmir Begovic to complete the first real passing move that United had put together.
Stoke almost equalised immediately, De Gea's fingertips just pushing Andy Wilkinson's venomous drive on to the angle of post and bar, though had a let-off themselves when Nani wafted his effort high over the bar after Begovic's mistake had invited a shot at an empty net.
De Gea made another fingertip save to deny Jon Walters as Stoke continued to press for an equaliser, and though United appeared to have weathered the storm by the interval Crouch turned up the volume several notches with his first goal for his new club early in the second half, getting between Jones and Rio Ferdinand to score with a straightforward header from Etherington's corner. Two minutes later Crouch had the opportunity to score a second and really bring the house down, but he missed it. All the hard work seemed to have been done when he fastened on to a Jermaine Pennant cross that Ferdinand had failed to deal with, yet with only De Gea to beat from the six-yard line his shot struck the goalkeeper's elbow and flew to safety over the bar.
As the game went into its final half-hour there was no doubt which side was on top. United were being penned back, partly because neither Berbatov nor Owen could hold the ball up in the Stoke half, and Pennant in particular was finding plenty of space into which to run, although Ryan Shawcross was fortunate to get away with what looked like a handball in the area when he half-turned his back to block a shot.
Ferguson sent on Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck for the last 20 minutes, the latter at the expense of Berbatov. Owen stayed on, because his manager rates his ability to conjure goals out of nothing, but nothing is precisely what he had to work with here. He did get a chance in stoppage time but was flagged offside and shot against the goalkeeper anyway. Giggs put his difficult volleyed opportunity wide and that was it.
As Crouch had hooked another decent chance wide three minutes from the end it was possible to reflect that United should probably have left with nothing, and Stoke's centre-forward ought to have had a hat-trick. Against United. Crouch was given the man of the match award for contributing the equaliser, but scoring a hat-trick against United would practically entitle a player to a statue in the car park. "I should have scored again – we created quite a few chances," Crouch said. "But it's not just about me. In all the clubs I've played at, I've never known a team spirit like this one."