Defeat for Manchester City at Goodison Park, courtesy of former United midfielder Darron Gibson, was enough to lift the defending champions into a share of first place with their noisy neighbours from across town.
Never the most popular of figures in his time with United, it was probably the only time that Gibson’s name had rung out around Old Trafford but an indication of just what a breathtakingly topsy-turvy campaign this has become.
With injury and illness to Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea, respectively, forcing United to hand a league debut to 21-year-old deputy Ben Amos, the penalty decisions ensured the defending Premier League champions enjoyed a comfortable evening and closed the gap on City in not only points but also potentially important goal difference.
United took the lead after 38 minutes when Jermaine Pennant was judged to have tripped United’s South Korean international midfielder Ji-Sung Park in the area.
In the absence of regular penalty taker Rooney, who has failed on four of his last eight attempts, Hernandez strode up and calmly beat Thomas Sorensen with a shot into the bottom left-hand corner.
Seven minutes into the second half, Antonio Valencia surged into the area with Ireland’s Jon Walters tugging at him from behind, a move which referee Mike Jones instantly deemed worthy of a penalty.
This time, surprisingly given Hernandez’s earlier success, Berbatov strode up to the mark and scored just as convincingly as his team mate had, low into the bottom right.
The pressure clearly now falls upon City and manager Roberto Mancini, especially as Ferguson hopes to welcome back injury victims Rooney, Nani and Ashley Young as early as this weekend.
“Obviously it’s significant drawing level,” said Ferguson. “But it’s still the last day in January. I always see March as the important month and we’ve got City in April, for instance.
“It’s been a good night. But I’m more pleased about our own performance. I thought it was terrific, we kept our composure and were very patient. Okay, we won with two penalties, but the manner in which we played was the main thing.”
With Stoke’s primary aim appearing to be to test United’s rookie goalkeeper with long-range shots, the bulk of the first period was spent with United patiently trying to break down Stoke’s dogged resistance.
A Michael Carrick strike won a 21st minute corner which resulted in Paul Scholes shooting from outside the area and sending a fierce strike just wide of the post and into the advertising hoardings and Carrick then linked intelligently with Park and Berbatov before rolling a left-foot shot inches wide, a miss followed moments later by the opening goal.
Even after taking the lead from the penalty, United might have had a second spot when a Hernandez cross struck Shawcross’s hand although referee Jones clearly viewed the infringement as accidental.
After Chris Smalling created an early second half opening for Berbatov, which was charged down by the visiting defence, Jones finally decided United merited a second penalty and, thereafter, the game looked well beyond Stoke.
Pennant’s free-kick almost presented Jones with a chance and the Stoke winger crossed well for sub Cameron Jerome whose header was fumbled, then saved on the line, by Amos.
Amazingly, it appeared United should have had a third penalty decision after Evra appeared to be brought down by Whitehead after 70 minutes and United substitute Paul Pogba had a pair of shots, blocked by defenders before Berbatov placed a late opportunity the wrong side of the post.
“I think it’s very open,” said Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, of the title race. “The one thing United have got over them is they’ve done it before and usually get stronger after Christmas.”
MAN UNITED (4-4-2): Amos 5; Smalling 7, Evans 6, Ferdinand 7, Evra 6; Valencia 8, Scholes 7, Carrick 7, Park 6; Hernandez 7 (Pogba 72, 7), Berbatov 7.
STOKE (4-4-2): Sorensen 6; Wilkinson 5, Shawcross 6, Huth 5, Wilson 6; Pennant 7, Whitehead 6, Palacios 5 (Delap 75, 6), Walters 5 (Fuller 75, 6); Jones 6, Crouch 5 (Jerome 57, 6).
Referee: M Jones 6