United had to settle for a 1-1 draw with bottom-club Stoke City in Barclays Under-21 Premier League Group 2.
Warren Joyce's side faced a determined Potters team containing several players with top-flight experience, including Maurice Edu, Wilson Palacios and Ryan Shotton, and had to come from behind with the outstanding Nick Powell netting a sublime equaliser towards the end of the first half.
The Reds made a terrible start on a chilly night in Altrincham and conceded a goal inside five minutes. Michele Fornasier's clearance cannoned off Jamie Ness and into the path of James Alabi who gratefully bent a finish wide of Sam Johnstone.
Johnstone had to be alert when sold a little short by Fornasier soon afterwards and the keeper also had to save from Karim Rossi before getting his face in the way of a close-range header by the Potters striker. The pick of Johnstone's stops, however, came at a cost as he touched a wonder-strike by Alabi from 35 yards onto the bar and collided with a post, suffering a bloody nose in the process.
United had offered little in the first period, except for a drive across goal by Powell following a neat, cushioned pass by Ryan Tunnicliffe. However, that all changed a minute before the interval when Powell, born near Stoke in Crewe, embarked on a dazzling slalom run that took him past three defenders and his prodded finish left Dale Eve with no chance.
Rossi's shot looped off Cole and was kept out by Johnstone at the start of the second half but the opportunities dried up for both teams. Japanese referee Hiroyuki Kimura had to pull Stoke up for a number of niggly fouls as the pitch became shrouded in fog and smoke from nearby fireworks.
So things became rather frustrating until a long throw-in almost allowed Andy Musungu to regain the lead but he stabbed off target with Johnstone advancing. Eve was out swiftly at the other end to thwart Marnick Vermijl as he tried to reach Tunnicliffe's intelligent reverse pass but the Reds rarely hit top form.