United extend EPL lead after Stoke victory

LONDON, Jan 4, 2011 (AFP) - Manchester United went three points clear at the top of the English Premier League table after a 2-1 win over Stoke on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Fulham climbed out of the relegation zone with a 3-0 victory at home to West Bromwich Albion while Birmingham also exited the bottom three following a 2-1 win away to Blackpool.

Javier Hernandez, who scored United's winner in a 2-1 win away to West Brom last time out, broke the deadlock in the 27th minute at Old Trafford with a stylish flick behind his legs from Nani's cross.

Nani (R) celebrates with Manchester United's Rafael Da Silva (L) after scoring the second goal during the match against Stoke City at Old Trafford in Manchester on January 4, 2011. AFP

However, Stoke were level five minutes after half-time when Dean Whitehead scored their first goal at Old Trafford since 1980 after rising unmarked to head in Tuncay's cross.

But just after the hour mark United, the only unbeaten side in English football's top flight this season, regained the lead thanks to Nani's sublime left-footed curler from 20 yards out.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson made several changes to his side with some, such as Wayne Rooney's ankle problem, injury-induced and he was delighted by the way his new-look team performed against the Potters.

"I made some changes tonight just to keep the squad motivated and also to give them game time because January is going to be a big month for us," Ferguson told Sky Sports.

"You've got to have faith and trust in the players and they've earned that trust because I see them every day in training, I see the games they have played, and they've never let me down."

Ferguson was especially pleased by the performance of Hernandez, saying he didn't mind having a selection dilemma when Rooney was fit again.

"That's the kind of problem you want and, over the years, the strikers I've had have always given me that problem. If Chico (Hernandez) keep sticking the ball in the net, it does give you a problem."

Stoke manager Tony Pulis added: "Whichever team they (United) put out, they've got players who can hurt you. They can make four or five changes and they are very similar to the ones Sir Alex has left out.

"You need that if you are going to be title-contenders and they've shown that again."

Second-placed Manchester City will go level on points again with United, who presently have a game in hand, if they beat Arsenal on Wednesday.

Victory for the Gunners, currently third, would see them leapfrog City and leave Arsenal two points behind United.

Fulham scored on the stroke of half-time when Simon Davies's long-range shot went through the hands of funmbling former England goalkeeper Scott Carson.

The hosts doubled their lead at Craven Cottage when United States midfielder Clint Dempsey headed in Davies's corner in the 56th minute.

And nine minutes later a Davies corner also led to Fulham's third goal, with Norwegian defender Brede Hangeland heading home on this occasion.

Albion's fifth defeat in a row meant they were just two points above the relegation zone.

Birmingham left it late to beat Blackpool, Scott Dann netting in the 89th minute after Roger Johnson's nod-down from Jean Beausejour's centre.

Alexander Hleb opened the scoring for Birmingham in the 24th minute at Bloomfield Road after intercepting a pass out of defence by the Tangerines' Stephen Crainey.

Blackpool though were level when former Birmingham forward DJ Campbell volleyed home in the 68th minute.

West Ham and Wigan, in action against Newcastle and Bolton respectively on Wednesday, both slipped back into the bottom three after Tuesday's results. 

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