Madness of Mata ends United revival
West Brom 1-0 Man Utd
It always appeared to be a tentative revival, but any hopes of such small steps beginning to gather momentum were halted as Manchester United's Champions League ambitions were dealt a heavy blow by the boot of Salomon Rondon and recklessness of Juan Mata at the Hawthorns.
Having secured four successive victories in all competitions over the past two weeks, Louis van Gaal's players came crashing down to earth with a bump as West Bromwich Albion toasted a home league victory over United for the first time since March 1984.
The win, sealed by Rondon's 66th-minute goal, as good as banishes any faint relegation fears for Albion, while the defeat leaves United trailing fourth-placed Manchester City by three points, having played a game more and with a vastly inferior goal difference.
United now face four games in 13 days in three competitions which will shape their season and the future of Van Gaal. Their prospects by 6.0 on March 20, when they visit City at the Etihad, will tell us an awful lot about what happens next in the manager's office at Old Trafford.
With West Ham having mounted a remarkable fightback to win at Everton on Saturday, and City having secured a routine victory at home to doomed Aston Villa, United knew they had no margin for error in their pursuit of a Champions League place.
Such has been their unpredictability this season, it is perhaps an achievement in itself that Van Gaal's players remain in contention for a top four finish.
A winless December, followed by a run of costly late goals conceded against Newcastle, Southampton and Chelsea, denied United the points that would have seen them well placed in the Champions League berths, and perhaps even on the tail of league leaders Leicester City, had they been able to secure just half the points they threw away.
It has only been the form slumps endured by Manchester City and Arsenal that have left the door open for United at the top, but they will have to run simply to stand still between now and the end of the campaign as a consequence of their bleak midwinter.
Yet back-to-back league victories against Arsenal and Watford had given them hope of a top-four finish - how the club's priorities have changed since Alex Ferguson waved farewell to United as champions with a 5-5 draw at this ground in May 2013 - even if there was a necessity to win here in order to make the Manchester derby later this month a truly decisive fixture.
With Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian back to fitness and in the team following injury lay-offs, and Marouane Fellaini declared fit to take a place on the bench, Van Gaal was at least able to field a more experienced team than in recent weeks. But despite the more senior look to his starting XI, the Dutchman could only watch on from the dug-out as the home side dominated the first half.
The 26th-minute dismissal of Mata clearly added to United's problems. The Spaniard was sent off for two yellow cards in the space of two minutes - both plainly stupid bookings earned by the former Chelsea midfielder.
Having been booked for failing to retreat sufficiently for an Albion free-kick, Mata made a clumsy challenge on Darren Fletcher which left referee Mike Dean with no option but to brandish a second yellow and subsequent red card.
United had already been struggling to control the midfield; the loss of Mata left Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera having to work overtime to plug the gaps while Van Gaal resisted the temptation to throw on Fellaini or Morgan Schneiderlin in order to restore parity with West Brom in the middle third.
United were fortunate that Tony Pulis' team lacked the imagination with which to take advantage of their extra man. Albion's best efforts were restricted to high balls to full-back Craig Dawson, whose height repeatedly troubled United in the penalty area, before Saido Berahino scuffed a good effort wide.
Dawson, a centre-half filling a gap at full-back, may never have enjoyed so many goalscoring opportunities in one game and the former Rochdale defender almost gave his team the lead with a dipping volley from 25 yards shortly before half-time.
So it was probably some relief to United when Dawson limped out of the game on 55 minutes, being replaced by Sebastien Pocognoli. Down to 10 men, United could only view the departure of the home side's biggest attacking threat as a positive.
By that stage, United had upped their game, sensing that Albion's over-cautious approach could give them an opportunity to snatch an opening goal.
Marcus Rashford saw a 51st-minute shot diverted behind for a corner after good tee-up work by Anthony Martial, and Jesse Lingard went close to testing goalkeeper Ben Foster two minutes later with a curling shot from 20 yards.
When Martial raced onto a Marcos Rojo clearance on 58 minutes, the French forward had the beating of Martin Olsson, but the Albion defender halted his run with a foul on the edge of the penalty area, earning a booking and conceding a free-kick in the process. But with Mata now back in his club suit and Memphis Depay on the bench, United lacked a free-kick expert, leaving Herrera to aim his set-piece tamely into the wall.
United were hardly pinning Albion's backs to the wall, though, and Pulis' team slowly regained control in midfield, with Fletcher and Craig Gardner helping the home side turn the tide.
And on 66 minutes, they were rewarded with the winning goal through Rondon after Pocognoli's fierce cross had been allowed to reach the Venezuelan forward by United's dozing defence.
Rondon brilliantly controlled the ball before swivelling to smash it past David De Gea from 10 yards.
Faced with a mountain to climb, United failed even to reach base camp. With a Europa League double-header against Liverpool and an FA Cup quarter-final against West Ham looming before the Premier League clash with City, an even bigger mountain now faces Van Gaal's team if they are to rescue their season.
Independent News Service