MANCHESTER, United Kingdom: Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal said an early goal had made all the difference after his side beat Stoke City 3-0 in a vastly improved performance.
United had not scored a first-half goal in 11 games at Old Trafford and were booed off after losing 1-0 to Southampton in their previous home match.
But Jesse Lingard’s 14th-minute header eased the tension on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) and United went on to score a superb second through Anthony Martial before the break and a third courtesy of captain Wayne Rooney in the second half.
Playing down suggestions that it had been United’s best display of the season, Van Gaal said: “No, I don’t think so. The difference is the first half we score and then it is much more easy.
“Michael Carrick said when you score like that in the first half, everything is going more easily.
“We have played games for 90 minutes with a lot of pressure and also against an opponent who had a higher level than Stoke City tonight [Tuesday].
“I think the players have made a great performance, not only defensively, but now also ‘attackingly’ because we created a lot of chances.
“We had fantastic finishing of team goals, building up from the back, which is what I like to see.”
Although he did not get on the scoresheet, Juan Mata was a pivotal performer for United in a central position behind Rooney, creating several chances and having opportunities to score himself.
The Spaniard had been left out of United’s starting line-up for their previous three Premier League games, but Van Gaal said that he cannot drop him again if he continues this form.
“He was participating in all the three goals so that is also what I like to see,” said the United manager.
“When he is playing how he is playing now, the chance is big, but every player has to prove it every week.
“Even my captain has to do that because everybody has forgotten he was a substitute against Stoke City away.
“It is for everybody always the same with me. You have to prove it every game, every training session and then you play. When he plays like this, I cannot say to him, ‘Go to the bench’.”
Rooney was dropped for United’s 2-0 Boxing Day defeat at Stoke as United lost for the fourth game running — a run that prompted serious scrutiny of Van Gaal’s position — but has since scored seven goals in as many games.
Van Gaal expects the striker, 30, to quickly break Bobby Charlton’s club record of 249 goals, which he now trails by five.
“I hope for him and it is also good for me then because when he scores, we win,” said Van Gaal.
United’s win was a welcome tonic following the announcement on Monday of Pep Guardiola’s appointment as Manchester City’s next manager.
City hope the arrival of the Bayern Munich coach will drive them to further success domestically and in Europe, placing further pressure on United, who are still five points away from a Champions League spot in fifth place in the Premier League.
But Van Gaal said that he was looking forward to welcoming Guardiola, who played under him at Barcelona, to the Premier League.
He said: “He is my former captain so I am very pleased to see him and I can speak Spanish, so it is convenient for him.”
Defeat for Stoke completed a disheartening sequence of results that had previously seen them dumped out of the League Cup and FA Cup in successive matches.
“The worst thing that can happen at Old Trafford is to concede early,” said Stoke manager Mark Hughes, the former United striker.
“That is the same team that did exceptionally well against Liverpool a few days ago [in the League Cup semifinals].
“The difference is marked so we have to look at it and see why that happened.”