Manchester United still cannot shake the habit of allowing opponents to score first, though when it is an own goal after just nine minutes it tends to kill the game.
At least chasing a lead generates drama and a bit of atmosphere. Being handed an early one by a side with limited attacking ambition made for a fairly flat end to the sporting year of 2012, though doubtless Sir Alex Ferguson would argue a routine win to preserve a seven point lead at the top of the Premier League is infinitely better than last New Year's fiasco, when United were beaten at home by bottom club Blackburn.
Not that this was a routine win, exactly, for prior to Robin van Persie's elegant clincher in the 90th minute, United were looking increasingly likley to be pegged back by West Brom. Both sides made several changes and had key players missing, and even with Wayne Rooney unavailable United were able to leave Robin van Persie on the bench and let Danny Welbeck lead the line. Hardly a recipe for high excitement, and while Ferguson perhaps felt there was too much of that in the last game against Newcastle, it possibly explained why the Old Trafford hoardings kept advertising the fact that tickets are still available for the upcoming game against Liverpool.
United survived a penalty scare in the opening minutes which made you wonder if putting pressure on referees is a long term project that pays dividends for Ferguson, although referee Jon Cross was probably right in surmising it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. While Chris Smalling made no contact with the ball when he brought down Shane Long in the area, the West Brom striker had also given up on possession in favour of leaning into his opponent.
The home side may also have enjoyed a stroke of luck when they took the lead four minutes later. Steve Clarke was unhappy about a foul in the build up, but play was allowed to continue and after playing a one-two with Shinji Kagawa to get into a dangerous position, Ashley Young's low cross cum shot from the left was deflected past his own goalkeeper by Gareth McAuley.
Playing well in his first game for two months, Kagawa almost set up a second for Young on the half hour, when his perfectly weighted pass down the right wing invited an Antonio Valencia cross from which Young brought a first class save from Ben Foster, who reacted quickly to touch an accurate attempt onto the bar and out for a corner. If that was sharp from the former United goalkeeper, he was decidely ponderous on the stroke of the interval, allowing Welbeck to charge down a clearance from a backpass and watching with relief as the rebound rolled to safety instead of into an empty net. Apart from one promising run from Peter Odemwingie, the visitors' only threats were a couple of free kicks at the end of the first half, both of which were scrambled away.
Chris Brunt saw a long shot saved at the start of the second half then saw a better effort blocked by Patrice Evra, as United's attempts to score a second descended into farce. Young's air-shot from near the penalty spot was perhaps the most inept squandering of a decent chance, though Welbeck and Kagawa also lacked confidence and finesse in front of goal. After 65 minutes Ferguson had had enough and sent Van Persie on, just in time to see McAuley head against the bar from a corner, though a goal would not have counted as the referee had spotted an infringement. By this stage of the game the team in front was fighting a rearguard action and struggling to cross the half way line, while the away fans were the only ones making any noise, alternating between reminding the home crowd how sepulchral the silence was and mocking Ferguson for his assertion last week that Van Persie "could have been killed" by a football at Swansea. Van Persie saw a shot saved before the end and failed to slip Welbeck through on goal, and after going almost all the attacking in the second half West Brom could consider themselves unlucky to leave empty handed when Van Persie finally added a second, making space for a left foot curler from the edge of the area after Paul Scholes had seen a shot blocked. Don't be fooled by the scoreline. Between the two goals, that is for more than 80 minutes, United were painfully laboured. The days might be lengthening again now, butfew afternoons will feel longer than this one.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © House of Joy Photos
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