Late-goal specialist Carlos Tevez made it a merry Christmas for United, giving the champions all three points in the Potteries with an 83rd-minute winner.
The vital breakthrough goal was created by Dimitar Berbatov, sent on as a substitute as Sir Alex Ferguson strived to avoid another costly stalemate.
The Reds were dealt a Boxing Day blow when Rio Ferdinand was forced out of the first eleven at the last minute, apparently after aggravating a sore back in the warm-up. Jonny Evans stepped up from the bench to start alongside Nemanja Vidic and was almost immediately punished for a split-second’s hesitation when, with just 50 seconds on the clock, Stoke’s top scorer Ricardo Fuller got in behind the back four. Fortunately, the striker reprieved United by firing over the bar.
United's first chance was glanced across goal by Nemanja Vidic from an early Ryan Giggs corner. Another ball from a wide area, Gary Neville’s right-wing cross, was volleyed wide by Carlos Tevez with ex-Reds defender Ryan Shawcross in close attendance.
Such intense pressure on the ball from the Potters, combined with the excitable and vocal home crowd, made this important league game feel almost like a FA Cup tie with United cast as giants to be killed for the pleasure of a baying public.
Fuller drifted beyond the centre-backs again after 16 minutes when he brilliantly brought a floated pass under control, only for van der Sar to race off his line and intervene.
Fuller’s strike partner Richard Cresswell was the first player in referee Chris Foy’s book, after leading with his arm in an aerial duel with Evans. Victim and perpetrator traded roles for United’s first yellow when Evans clattered Cresswell, moments after Foy failed to see Rooney being tugged back by young right-back Andy Wilkinson. However, the latter’s next foul, on Ryan Giggs, was duly censured by the busy official.
This ugly spell in the first half did have one flash of beauty, Rooney swooping to head into Thomas Sorensen’s hands from another effective cross by Neville. Evans also came close to scoring but his close-range shot was blocked by Danny Higginbotham, another of Stoke’s ex-United trio (completed by