Manchester United set the stage for a long second-half run at the Premiership title today by traveling to Stoke City during a loaded matchday in the top fight.
United were probably quite knackered after a week-long trip to Japan, which saw them informally crowned "Best Club in the World" after winning the FIFA Club World Cup.
United's starting 11 was a bit misshapen on paper; Vidic slotting into right-center back as Evans filled in for a knocked Ferdinand, and Mancunian archlords Neville, Scholes, and Giggs all receiving rare starts. Fletcher partnered Scholes in the middle, with Tevez and Rooney each roaming along the frontline.
Scholes was happy to spray the ball around all game, stretching a small Stoke City pitch. His first errant pass was in the 46th minute when he simply missed his target going downfield. Fletcher himself was anonymous throughout virtually all of the match, which is rare for the Scot who has announced himself as a very reliable footballer this season.
Although United played well throughout the first half, it was Stoke who had the most opportunities, although most were half-chances. United were passing well, and the defense was imperious, as usual, with Vidic monster gobbling up header after header.
Passions from the first half carried over and were amplified in the second. Both Rooney and Ronaldo were flying about the pitch, the Englishman usually with his studs showing, and the winger usually ending up on his backside.
Wilkinson, Stoke's right-back, owned Ronaldo all match. In fact, if they were imprisoned together as cellmates, it is clear who would have assumed the more subservient role, and the accompanying moniker usually reserved for female dogs or fast women.
As Ronaldo increasingly became unstuck, he lashed out at the right-back, while on the ground, but it again went unpunished as similar actions had in United's last domestic match. Wilkinson did United and Ronaldo a huge favor, though, when he lunged into the winger on 72 minutes, getting sent-off and likely preventing Ronaldo from inevitably doing the same.
Our Portuguese star asset has carried this team over the past few years, on and off the pitch. Ronaldo arrived the summer Beckham departed, and the Englishman may as well have shared some choice words for the youngster at the airport. Ronaldo picked up where Beckham left off, being the central focus for the club in both marketing and attacking.
The pressure, though, is clearly getting to the winger. Much of it is self-administered. He is desperate to prove to everyone that he is the best footballer in the world, despite it already being a widely held belief.
However, last year, and especially in the year prior, Ronaldo didn't try to prove anything; he just played his football. But now, as arrogance and expectation take their toll on the young man, he fades further and further into the poor form that has characterized his 2009 campaign.
Tevez and Rooney play like doppelgangers of one-another, the major difference being the demeanor each assumes doing it. Rooney swears and charges brashly around the pitch, throwing elbows and generally just causing a raucous. Tevez, though, is never seen complaining, whining, or diving; he plays with great honesty and humility. Is this hubris not the surest sign of real class?
Rooney and Tevez rarely use their left foot, either to bring the ball to their right side, or carry the ball to their left, something which sells short so much of either's attacking potential. Each like to receive the ball on the left side, drop a shoulder, and carry it right, usually dinking it off to the overlapping Neville, before running back to the center, having accomplished nothing.
Berbatov was introduced on 64 minutes and his versatility would change the match.
Playing with his back to goal outside the penalty box right, the Bulgarian demigod coolly one-timed a forward pass to feed Neville down the flank. Berbatov seized upon the resulting cross and elegantly, with the faintest of touches, took it first past a bemused defender before poking it with his second touch to a well-positioned onrushing Tevez.
Tevez celebrated the goal like he was it's chief architect, while Berbatov, ever in-style, took a moment to keep his own counsel, fists clenched self-affirmed, before joining the United players sprinting to celebrate with the jubilant Argentinian.
Everyone comes out a winner, though. Tevez gets his name on the score-sheet, just his second goal this season domestically, and United gather the first three points of many to be accumulated in the coming months.
Berbatov, ever the pariah, was the unsung factor again for United, the deft hands that pick the lock for other players to kick open the door.
(Player ratings next page)
Van der Sar: [7.5] Made some decent saves. Goalkeepers usually get the short end of the stick when it comes to player ratings, but he did nothing wrong today and earned his clean sheet.
Neville:  One of his best performances this season. In a physical match, Neville maintained his composure and sent in many trademark crosses, overlapping with a real engine.
Vidic: [8.5] Monster devoured headers all game and made some acrobatic tackles on the pitch. Is there a more consistently dominant center-back in Europe? Juventus' Chielinni comes second to the Serbian who has few peers.
Evans: [7.5] Did precisely what was asked of him, and did it without aplomb or fanfare. Got forward for some set pieces and put his head in where it hurts. Evolving young defender. He might have saved Roy Keane at Sunderland if Ferguson had loaned him there, as Keane had hoped.
O'Shea: [6.5] Did very little going forward. It's hard to fault him, but he's got big shoes to fill in that position.
Giggs:  Ineffective all match.
Fletcher: [6.5] Faded into anonymity for much of the match, but a stellar performer all season.
Scholes: [8.5] The Ginger Prince put 91 solid minutes under his belt, fizzing the ball up and down the pitch, using different techniques for each pass. Pure joy to watch. His engine is more suited for a Fiat than a Ferrari, but his role in the club has been tailored for the demises that age brings.
Ronaldo:  His worst game in what is, thus far, his worst season at United. What is going on inside his head, only he knows, but the boy needs a rest, a tongue-lashing, or a really huge joint to get himself squared away.
Rooney:  Passed well. Couldn't really run past anybody. Missed one really nice chance. But, he is a great footballer, not always conducive to scoring, but still connects play quite well.
Tevez: [7.5] An extra .5 for scoring. Tevez never complains or bemoans decisions; he plays with great austerity and class. I was happy to see him so happy after scoring, but does United really need both Rooney and Tevez? If Tevez is unhappy playing second fiddle, perhaps greener pastures await the legendary Argentine.
Berbatov (62 mins):  Does what he usually does: Look unassuming and innocent, link play with deft touches and a great sense of positioning, and ultimately provide the x-factor that a stagnant United offense needed.
As Scholesy continues to regain his fitness, while Ronaldo hopefully takes a step back, United, with Berbatov, can move forward to the New Year with real stars in their eyes.