Louis van Gaal had to be thankful for small mercies as Manchester United withstood arguably their toughest test of a 10-match unbeaten run which now extends into 2015.
The Dutchman’s side had to overcome the shock of falling behind in the second minute and losing another of their key players in battling to earn a point at Stoke City.
After being stunned by their former defender Ryan Shawcross, United hit back through Radamel Falcao, but had plenty of scares on the way to claiming a hard-earned point.
Of most concern to Van Gaal will be the loss of in-form midfielder Ashley Young, who limped out of the game with a hamstring injury which is likely to sideline him for a month.
United’s manager’s believes that the latest addition to a long injury list adds further weight to concerns he has expressed about the health of his players in such a busy period.
“You have seen, for example, that Ashley Young could not bear that load,” the Dutchman groaned as he highlighted the fact that this was United’s third game in the space of six days.
Van Gaal fears that players have to compromise on quality in such circumstances, but this was always an occasion where they needed to show character and resilience.
The Britannia Stadium continues to be the most unwelcoming of grounds for visiting teams and United were made to feel uncomfortable right from the very start.
“I think we have known before the game already that this would be tough,” stated Van Gaal. “Stoke are a well organised team and play with long balls.
“We started very badly by conceding from a set play that we had prepared for. They scored the same way we had thought. That’s a big disappointment.”
He added: “I think Stoke City deserved more the victory and at the end a draw is good. I cannot say we were the better team. I have said that many, many times before, but today I cannot say that.
“We could have passed the ball quicker I think, the crosses were not so good. I don’t think one cross was good.
“I also think that the last pass of our midfielders was not so good. Okay, the circumstances are not as always, but you have to adapt.”
United found themselves under the cosh from the outset as Stoke did what they have done so well for many years now from a well-executed set-piece.
Peter Crouch was picked out at the far post by Marko Arnautovic’s deep corner and his goalbound header was hooked home by Shawcross.
Van Gaal’s men were fortunate not to find themselves two down, only for another of their former players, Mame Biriam Diouf, to blaze his shot wide of the target from an excellent position after he had outmuscled Jonny Evans.
Having scored from a set-piece themselves, Stoke were then undone by another one when United hit back from a corner.
Michael Carrick got the deftest of touches to Wayne Rooney’s corner and the ever alert Falcao pounced to score from close range.
Though the first half action offered the promise of more goals after the break, both sides struggled to make headway in the wild conditions.
Ironically, Van Gaal’s decision to make a double change sparked a burst of pressure in which Stoke went close to regaining the lead.
Phil Jones was relieved to see his clearance flash past the upright when he intervened as a Jon Walters cross was heading for Crouch.
From the resulting corner, Stoke had furious appeals for a penalty waved away by Michael Oliver after Chris Smalling appeared to have blocked Crouch’s header with an outstretched arm.
The decision enraged Stoke boss Mark Hughes. He said: “It was a goal-bound header and he (Smalling) has made an intentional movement with his arm to bat the ball down.
“The referee is standing four or five yards away. Why he hasn’t given it, I don’t know.
“I haven’t spoke to the ref about it. It’s a waste of time.
“He will no doubt say the lad couldn’t get out of the way because he was too close maybe but I don’t think that was the case.”
Whipped up by that controversy, Hughes’ side exerted more pressure and thought they had gone back in front from a free kick.
Crouch met Arnautovic’s delivery into the box with a glancing header, but saw his effort bounce out off the inside of a post before United somehow managed to prevent Geoff Cameron from following up from close range.
United’s best chance of the half was conjured out of nothing as Robin Van Persie instinctively collected a Juan Mata ball over the top and lobbed it over the advancing Asmir Begovic only to see it drift wide of the far post.
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Begovic 6; Cameron 6, Shawcross 8, Muniesa 7, Pieters 6; Walters 6, Nzonzi 7, Whelan 6, Arnautovic 7 (Assaidi 80 mins); Crouch 6, Diouf 6.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): De Gea 7; Jones 6, Smalling 5, Evans 6, Shaw 6 (Januzaj 63 mins 5); Young 7 (Rafael 74 mins), Carrick 7, Rooney 6, Mata 6; Falcao 6, Van Persie 6.
Referee: Michael Oliver.