LONDON: Manchester United are winners again, at last. Confidence is flowing again, at last. United were fortunate to beat Stoke 2-1 at Old Trafford on Tuesday but the achievement of a fourth win in succession was more significant than the performance.

Marouane Fellaini headed United in front midway through the first half and then Juan Mata and Marcos Rojo both claimed United’s winner – the Spaniard’s goal-bound cross was barely glanced in by the Argentinian – after Steven Nzonzi had equalised to punish slack defending.

Manager Louis Van Gaal was pleased more with a result which stepped up the pressure on third-placed Southampton than with the performance. The Glazier family who own the club have factored a third-place finish into their budget for next year so there is plenty more work to do and more improvement needed.

Van Gaal said: I’m a very crazy coach. I want a better performance. In the first half we were not aggressive enough and also we didn’t keep our positions on the pitch so I wasn’t pleased at half-time. The second half was much better. We created more chances – but we still need to score more goals.”

The last minutes, with Peter Crouch on as substitute to threaten in the air, saw United penned back inside their penalty box. Keeper David De Gea making two fine saves and Ashley Young clearing off the goal-line as Stoke threatened to overwhelm Van Gaal’s men.

The fact that United held out was evidence of an improvement in both organisation and team spirit.

Last season, under David Moyes, United were so drained of resolution that such an onslaught would have seen them concede not only an equaliser but maybe also another, defeating goal. Instead they hung on to record a fourth successive win for the first time in a year.

They did so despite the injury absences of Wayne Rooney, who needs a scan on a leg injury suffered against Hull at the weekend, and Angel Di Maria. The Argentinian, at least, should be back for next Monday’s highly-important visit to Southampton.

Captain’s comeback

Steven Gerrard remains massively important to Liverpool. Even though manager Brendan Rodgers has started thinking about life without a central role for his captain, Liverpool’s captain underlined his value to a team in transition by contributing decisively to a 3:1 win at struggling Leicester.

Gerrard, who is thinking over a short-term contract extension offer, created goals for Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson and scored Liverpool’s second goal himself to put them ahead after an opening strike from Leicester’s Leonardo Ulloa ricocheted off a post and keeper Simon Mignolet.

The 34-year-old’s  resurgence could not have been timed more dramatically after he had been omitted from the starting line-up last weekend and then asked to take a pay cut to extend his stay at his only professional club.

Not that the money is an issue for Gerrard: more important in his decision will be where he sees his future and whether he would consider following the example of old England partner and rival Frank Lampard and pursue a ‘cosy conclusion’ in the United States.

At least victory and Gerrard’s issues removed some of the focus from Mario Balotelli. He risks FA disciplinary action over an Instagram posting of a picture of the Super Mario computer game character to which he had added racially offensive and anti-semitic wording (“. . . jumps like a black man and grabs coins like a Jew”).

Balotelli has deleted and apologised for the image whose posting appears bizarre given the player’s own angry impatience with racist language. To compoud the confusion, as Balotelli pointed out in his own attempted defence, his adoptive Italian mother is Jewish.

Lambert denial

** Paul Lambert is back in his own again – and it works. After Villa’s 1:0 win at Crystal Palace Lambert insisted there was “absolutely no bust-up” when Roy Keane quit as his assistant manager at the weekend.

Lambert denied reports that the former Manchester United captain Keane had been involved in training-ground rows with players before walking out.

Christian Benteke’s first goal in nine months handed Villa their first win in 10 games. Benteke’s goal was his 30th goal in 60 Premier games but first since knee surgery in March.

** Ki Sung-yueng scored his first goal since the opening day of the season as Swansea beat relegation-threatened QPR 2:0. The second goal was scored by Rangers’ ‘old boy’ Wayne Routledge.

** West Ham recovered from a goal down to beat West Bromwich 2:1 at The Hawthorns on goals from Kevin Nolan and James Tomkins, Hammers’ centre back. Tomkins’s goal was his first for two years.

** Burnley maintained their struggle to escape the bottom three by stretching their unbeaten run to four matches with a 1:1 home draw against Newcastle.