The Mexican striker back-heeled home the Portuguese winger’s cross to open the scoring and, after Dean Whitehead had nodded the visitors level, the United pair swapped roles as Chicharito teed up Nani to blast home a left-footed winner.
The victory, which assures United of top spot regardless of the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting between Arsenal and Manchester City, was a fitting reward for a sweat-soaked denouement to the hectic festive period.
Stoke battled throughout, and had briefly looked like taking a share of the spoils back to the Midlands after drawing exploiting United’s sloppy start to the second half. That 10-minute lull aside, the Reds controlled the flow of the game – despite dramatic alterations to the spine of the side which won narrowly at West Brom last Saturday.
Rio Ferdinand was rested ahead of Sunday's looming FA Cup clash with Liverpool, while Edwin van der Sar and Wayne Rooney missed out through illness and injury respectively. Midfield duo Michael Carrick and Anderson dropped to the bench after starting five successive games together.
Chris Smalling partnered Nemanja Vidic in central defence, ahead of Tomasz Kuszczak, while Hawthorns hero Chicharito replaced Rooney and Darren Fletcher reverted to a central midfield role with Darron Gibson.
Galvanised by their collective freshness, the hosts began brightly, popping passes around and dominating possession. Under five minutes had elapsed when Gibson chanced his arm with a trademark strike from distance, only