Manchester United’s hopes of launching a New Year title challenge suffered a setback at the first opportunity on Thursday when they could only draw 1-1 at mid-table Stoke City in an all-action Premier League clash.
The result stretched their unbeaten run to 10 games but three of the last four have been draws and their already slim-looking hopes of catching the top two receded further after a match where they were somewhat lucky to escape with a point.
United remain third on 37 points, six behind Manchester City and nine behind leaders Chelsea, both of whom are in action later on Thursday in a full programme of Premier League action.
Though United are progressing as an attacking force under Louis van Gaal, they still look vulnerable at the back and that weakness cost them a goal after two minutes.
Peter Crouch got his head to a corner and Ryan Shawcross was the quickest to react to steer the ball as Stoke continued with the form that had brought them two wins out of two in the Christmas fixtures.
Mame Diouf should have made it 2-0 when he outmuscled Jonny Evans but then with just David de Gea to beat, shot wide.
United levelled midway through the first half from their own corner, which Michael Carrick flicked on and Radamel Falcao turned in but they were never able to take control of the game.
In a game made open and tough for defenders by a swirling wind, Crouch hit a post for Stoke and had a strong penalty claim for handball turned down, while Robin van Persie sent an aerial volley just wide in the second half.
“We’re disappointed, in terms of pressure, momentum, chances created, I think we were the team who looked most likely to score,” Stoke boss Mark Hughes told Sky Sports.
“Tactically we were spot on and they found it difficult to get their key players on the ball.”
United defender Evans accepted that his side could have few complaints. “Maybe some of the other draws we’ve had recently we deserved to win but today I felt Stoke put us under a lot of pressure in the second half and we probably didn’t play up to our usual standard.”
Later on Thursday Manchester City host Sunderland and fourth-placed Southampton play fifth-placed Arsenal amid a host of 1500 GMT kick offs and Chelsea are at Tottenham Hotspur at 1730.