Manchester City’s appointment of Guardiola, confirmed on Monday, has raised the stakes across the Premier League and most notably in Manchester, where the former Barcelona manager and current Bayern Munich coach is expected to take City to a new level.
United are desperate not to be left behind with the announcement of Guardiola as Manuel Pellegrini’s successor placing even greater scrutiny on their own managerial position, where van Gaal has struggled to convince that he is the man to restore the club’s fading fortunes.
The Dutchman appears to have ridden out the immediate storm regarding his position but this was still the kind of result - and performance - he needed to start winning over the doubters and to keep alive United’s prospects of qualifying for the Champions League.
After United’s last home game - a 1-0 defeat to Southampton - van Gaal had been booed off as his side failed to add to a tally of only 11 goals at home in the Premier League all season.
This then, was the perfect tonic as Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney scored to cap a display that was, at times, reminiscent of United at their best unde Alex Ferguson before the rot set in under David Moyes and then van Gaal in a turbulent spell either side of Christmas.
United’s paltry goalscoring record had made van Gaal’s side the lowest scoring United team at this stage of a season since 1989/90, a campaign in which they finished 13th in the top flight with Hughes finishing as their top scorer with 15 goals.
Lifting the FA Cup proved their salvation and arguably kept Alex Ferguson safe from the sack and van Gaal’s own job security was helped by last Friday night’s fourth-round cup win at Derby.
Stoke’s record in the knock-out competitions has not been so comforting with exits from both the Capital One and FA Cups in the space of the last week, leaving them to concentrate purely on their attempts to beat their best Premier League finish of ninth.
Hughes’ side ended a 57-year wait for a win at Liverpool before going out of the Capital One Cup on penalties and needed to create more history to win here in the manager’s 100th Premier League game in charge with Stoke not having tasted success at Old Trafford since 1976.
They were unable to include record buy Giannelli Imbula after the midfielder, 23, was signed from Porto for a fee of £15.1m too late on transfer deadline day to be eligible to play, although United also had no new faces to call on either following their blank in the January transfer window.
Midfielder Michael Carrick earned a return to starting duty for the first time since United’s Boxing Day defeat at Stoke, where an abject performance had brought a fourth successive defeat and major pressure for van Gaal.
Last night’s start could not have been in greater contrast to that abject display as United raced into a 2-0 inside the first 23 minutes as they finally found some kind of form.
Incredibly, United had failed to score a first-half goal in their previous 11 matches in a torrid run stretching back to the end of September but that statistic was banished as they gave the supporters, who observed a minute’s applause to mark the 58th anniversary of the Munich disaster before kick-off, what they wanted.
Juan Mata excelled in a central midfield position and could have had a hat-trick, heading wide the best chance from a Matteo Darmian cross.
But the goals would come this time as United equalled their biggest league win of the season.
Lingard eased the pressure with the crucial early goal, stooping to head in Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s low cross.
And then came the highlight of the night as United pieced together a superb counter-attack, finished off by Rooney’s pass to Martial who delightfully curled his ninth goal of the season into the top corner.
Rooney was magnificent and got the goal he deserved after the break. The captain had an effort disallowed after he barged over Phil Bardsley but wouldn’t be denied a seventh goal in as many games as he tapped in a Martial cross following another flowing move with 53 minutes gone.
And as United made a long overdue statement of intent they almost added a fourth when substitute Memphis Depay kissed the bar with an angled shot late on.
De Gea 6; Darmian 7, Smalling 7, Blind 7 , Borthwick-Jackson 7; Carrick 8, Fellaini 7(Herrera 80); Lingard 7, Mata 8 (Pereira 87), Martial 8 (Depay 79); Rooney 8.
Butland 6; Johnson 5, Wollscheid 5 (Bardley 30, 5), Muniesa 5, Pieters 5; Whelan 6, Afellay 5; Walters 6, Krkic 5(Ireland 60, 6), Arnautovic 5; Crouch 5.
Roger East 8