Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal bemoans lack of firepower
Manchester United 0 West Brom 1
They were supposed to become an irresistible force, with the Premier League's most expensively assembled attacking unit unleashing the firepower to make Champions League qualification a formality, yet Manchester United now risk stumbling into the Europa League without a goal in sight.
Louis van Gaal enjoys offering statistical evidence to respond to his critics and the United manager would be right to point out that, even after succumbing to Jonas Olsson' second-half goal against West Bromwich Albion, his team stand four points clear of fifth-placed Liverpool with just three games to play this season.
But what was an eight-point advantage nine days ago has been halved by Brendan Rodgers' equally unconvincing team and United are looking over their shoulder as a result of three successive defeats that have failed to generate a single goal.
At the end of this game, West Brom were having to repel the kind of strike force that would look great in one of those sportswear commercials created to launch a new pair of boots.
Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao, as well as the £59.7m winger Angel di Maria, may be fearsome on paper, but they are proving to be as convincing as the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz just when their powers are needed most by Van Gaal and United.
United's failure to score against Tony Pulis' dogged team means that they now fired blanks in three successive Premier League games for the first time since August 2007.
They did not want for chances here. Fourteen efforts on goal, including a Van Persie penalty which was saved by Boaz Myhill, should have resulted in at least one successful conversion, but United's failure highlighted a season-long problem for Van Gaal.
His team possess forwards with their best days behind them and the numbers prove it.
Between them, Rooney, Van Persie and Falcao have scored just 28 goals in all competitions this season, with Di Maria contributing four and James Wilson, something of a forgotten man - or boy - netting just twice.
By comparison, Barcelona's front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar took their combined haul for the season to 108 goals during the 8-0 win against Cordoba on Saturday.
Nobody inside or outside of Old Trafford would suggest that Rooney, Van Persie and Falcao should be competing with Barcelona's voracious predators but, equally, few would have batted an eyelid had their tally of 28 been doubled this season.
Van Gaal, at least, accepts that his forwards are falling short where it matters most - in front of goal.
"I miss a striker that scores and every striker who scores - if it's Van Persie or Falcao or Rooney - I'm very happy and the team is very happy," the United manager said.
"It's a concern now (a lack of goals) because it's not a coincidence and, in spite of the way we have played against Chelsea, Everton and now against West Bromwich Albion, we have created a lot of chances and still we don't score.
"You can say, as manager, we were not unlucky in every match. It's also that you have to finish these chances."
United last endured three successive league defeats in December 2001, but they head to Crystal Palace on Saturday needing to avoid a fourth consecutive loss for the first time since February 1979 so they do not give Liverpool, and Tottenham, further encouragement in the race for fourth place.
And Michael Carrick, whose absence has coincided with the losing run, is unlikely to be back in time to steady the ship.
(© Daily Telegraph, London.)