Man Utd 3 ... Stoke 0: Martin O’Neill may well be reflecting today that he has dodged a bullet by turning down Stoke City after the side he would have taken to Old Trafford last night were beaten 3-0 by a Paul Pogba-inspired Manchester United to leave them in serious relegation trouble.
Ireland manager O’Neill has been at the centre of Stoke soap opera for the last week with the will-he, won’t-he story ebbing and flowing by the day.
But it was Paul Lambert who sat in the director’s box at Old Trafford as manager-to-be for the Potteries side, not O’Neill - finally putting an end to speculation that he and assistant Roy Keane were ready to ditch international football in favour of the Premier League.
It is not yet clear what made O’Neill make up his mind.
Was the final ‘no’ made out of loyalty to his current employers after verbally agreeing a two-year contract extension some time ago?
Or, alternatively, did the Stoke project not quite match up to his expectations?
Or was the fact he was only third choice, after the club were turned down by both Gary Rowett and Quique Sanchez Flores before the baton passed to him, prove too uncomfortable in the end?
Whatever the whys and wherefores there is likely to be little regret in the O’Neill household today after this result left Stoke firmly rooted in the bottom three of the Premier League and only three points above bottom side Swansea.
In truth, Stoke didn’t perform that badly, there were certainly signs of quality in midfield, but they found United, even in second gear, too good to cope with.
Wonderful first-half goals from Antonio Valencia and Anthony Martial put United in control as they moved to within 12 points of leaders Manchester City, before Romelu Lukaku wrapped things up on a day when Jose Mourinho also looked to have put one over the noisy neighbours in the transfer market too by winning the race to sign Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez.
Not that Mourinho was giving anything away.
He said: “No news on Alexis Sanchez, he is an Arsenal player, if he stays it’s great for Arsenal, if he comes to us, great for us, if he goes to another club, great for them.
“I’m not going to speak about hypothetical situations. Probably there are other clubs also interested and trying and I shouldn’t talk about a player who is an Arsenal player.”
From O’Neill’s perspective perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game was the sight of former Republic international midfielder Stephen Ireland starting a Premier League game for the first time in 996 days — a spell going all the way back to the 2015-16 season in which he broke his leg.
Who knows if the 31-year-old is ever likely to end his self-imposed international exile but he made a good impression on his return, even coming close to scoring in the first half when it was still 1-0, and it would have been fascinating to know if O’Neill, so brutally snubbed by the player back in May 2014 when he offered the midfielder a return to the Republic set-up, would have selected him here had he been in charge.
As it is, Ireland has the uncomfortable prospect instead of trying to persuade new manager Lambert — the man who sold him to Stoke when he was in charge at Aston Villa — that he deserves a run in the side now fully fit.
On this performance he deserves a chance, even if his display was never going to be enough to take three points.
United opened the scoring after only nine minutes when Valencia cut inside after a neat pass from the imperious Pogba and rifled a ferocious left-footed strike high into the left-hand corner of the net.
It was 2-0 by the 37th minute, this time Pogba’s clever pass across the edge of the area being beautifully fired home at the first attempt by Martial.
It could, and should, have been more, with all of United’s forward players looking lively, even if the game slowed somewhat in the second half with the points already in the bag — and it was no real surprise when Lukaku drilled home number three on the turn after a neat touch from Mata in the 73rd minute.
Stoke provided plenty of effort and resistance, particularly in the first half when Ireland shot narrowly wide and Choupo Moting saw a goalbound effort blocked, but in the end they were second best by a long margin and now face a vital home match against relegation rivals Huddersfield this weekend having conceded 28 goals in their last 12 matches. No wonder O’Neill was wary.
United, who go to Burnley on Saturday, have no such problem.
They won here at a canter and are growing in confidence — both on and off the pitch.
De Gea 7; Valencia 8, Jones 7, Smalling 6, Shaw 6; Pogba 8, Matic 7; Mata 7 (McTominay 83; 5), Lingard 6 (Fellaini 80; 6), Martial 8 (Rashford 80; 6); Lukaku 7.
Butland 7; Bauer 7, Zouma 7, Martins Indi 6, Tymon 5 (Wimmer 45; 6); Shaqiri 6, Allen 7, Fletcher 6, Ireland 7, Choupo-Moting 6 (Ramadan 61; 6); Crouch 5 (Diouf 70; 6).
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