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Man United beats Stoke 2-1 thanks to Mata's 2nd-half winner, secures 4th straight league win

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MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United relied on a fortunate winning goal from Juan Mata and a breathtaking double save from David de Gea in injury time to beat Stoke 2-1 and secure a fourth straight Premier League victory on Tuesday.

Comfortable but never convincing at Old Trafford, United ended up scrambling to the three points that kept the team in the top four and maintained its revival under new manager Louis van Gaal.

Mata's winner in the 59th minute had a slice of fortune about it, with the Spain playmaker's inswinging free kick from the right curling over the heads of a number of players in the box and bouncing into the far corner.

However, it needed two superb saves from De Gea and a goal-line clearance from Ashley Young — all in the final two minutes of injury time — to prevent Stoke from checking United's momentum.

"I am not happy with the performance," Van Gaal said. "Maybe we forced the luck and that is also because of the fighting spirit."

Without the injured pair of Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria, United lacked creativity and took a 21st-minute lead through a direct route when Marouane Fellaini scored a towering, far-post header.

Steven Nzonzi equalized in the 39th for Stoke with a powerful shot from the edge of the area and failed to genuinely test United until a frantic, final few minutes.

PHOTO: Manchester United's Marcos Rojo, centre right in red, watches as the ball heads goalwards as teammate Juan Mata, out of frame, scores from a free kick during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Tuesday Dec. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Manchester United's Marcos Rojo, centre right in red, watches as the ball heads goalwards as teammate Juan Mata, out of frame, scores from a free kick during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Tuesday Dec. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

"The episodes at the end were unbelievable," said Stoke manager Mark Hughes, who spent 13 years at United as a player across two spells.

United has been looking to restore the fear factor at Old Trafford — but its makeshift team was far from intimidating without Rooney and Di Maria, and a defense containing wingers Young and Antonio Valencia as full backs.

In the end, two high balls into the box — crosses that Stoke's physically imposing teams down the years were masters at dealing with — were the downfall of the hard-working but limited visitors.

Fellaini nipped in front of left back Erik Pieters to meet a hanging cross to the far post by Ander Herrera with a downward header into the center of the goal. Stoke should have been behind by then, with Herrera blasting a shot over the bar after Robin van Persie had intercepted a weak clearance by goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.

Nzonzi scored with Stoke's only shot on goal in the first half but United restored its lead just before the hour mark when Mata swung in a cross that narrowly eluded leaping United defender Marcos Rojo, who initially claimed the goal, and dropped into the far corner.

Fit-again Colombia striker Radamel Falcao came on for the final 12 minutes for United to replace 19-year-old James Wilson, who came in for Rooney.

But it was Stoke which finished the stronger, with Mame Biram Diouf seeing a header brilliantly parried out by De Gea and then having his goalbound shot cleared off the line by Young.

"I'm happy with the result," Van Gaal said, "tomorrow we have a Christmas party and it's important we can enjoy that."

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PHOTO: Manchester United's Juan Mata, center, celebrates scoring with teammates during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Tuesday Dec. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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