Wednesday 24 May 2017

United continue to lead charmed life at the top

West Brom 1 Man Utd 2

This was only Manchester United's second away win of the season yet it probably means they will win the title. If you can be outplayed to this extent and still take home all three points, it can only mean luck is on your side.

An extraordinary game also exploded the old myth that matches are won and lost in midfield. Were that the case, West Brom would have been easy victors. Instead, their inability to turn superiority into goals allowed their opponents to demonstrate something they have shown a few times over the years -- the knack of imposing themselves even when playing below their best.

"You have to dig deep in these games," Rio Ferdinand said. "West Brom came at us and played some good football but we managed to hang in and get what we wanted." Alex Ferguson, who has plenty of experience at recognising such moments, thought it was the sort of victory on which titles can turn. "It was a massive result for us, we really had to battle," the United manager said. "We were hanging on at times but Wayne Rooney drove us on. He was fantastic."

Rooney began the new year as if he intended to put the troubles of the old one behind him, giving United the lead after three minutes with his first goal from open play for 10 months. He then had to drop back to help out a midfield in danger of being overrun.

The league leaders went on to win a game they could easily have lost, while Rooney ended up hobbling with an ankle injury, just as he had in March when he scored against Bayern Munich. He ran off the soreness in the end but would almost certainly have been substituted, following Chris Brunt's late tackle, had United had anyone left to bring off the bench.

It appeared United might stroll to victory when they scored with their first serious attack -- Gabriel Obertan setting Patrice Evra up for a cross that picked out Rooney so perfectly the striker did not need to climb to beat Paul Scharner and Pablo Ibanez to the ball, merely lean forward and place a header in the corner Scott Carson had obligingly left uncovered.

That turned out to be about the last thing Obertan tried that worked, however, and United too unravelled to such an extent that Albion were bossing the game by half-time, effortlessly breaking from midfield to set up enough chances to put them in front.

James Morrison equalised with an absolute peach of a goal after 14 minutes, making the most of a weak clearance by Nemanja Vidic to give Tomasz Kuszczak no chance with a glorious drive from the edge of the area, and the fact that the scores remained level at the interval was wholly due to weak home finishing and some poor refereeing.

Albion should have had a penalty when Gary Neville brought down Graham Dorrans in the act of shooting after half an hour, and by the strict letter of the law the defender should have seen a red card as well. Neville made contact with the man and none with the ball, yet even so Dorrans should at least have got in a shot from Morrison's excellent through ball.

Remarkably, neither Chris Foy nor his assistant saw anything wrong with Neville's challenge, leaving Dorrans and the home crowd far from impressed. Almost as good a chance fell to the same player right at the end of the first half, from Peter Odemwingie's measured pass, only for Dorrans to fire into the side-netting.

Perhaps in the spirit of fairness Foy failed to award an equally blatant penalty to United in the second half, when Jerome Thomas used his arm to block a Fabio da Silva cross. But from the one penalty the referee did see -- a fairly obvious trip by Rio Ferdinand on Thomas -- Odemwingie wasted Albion's best chance of victory by snatching his spot-kick and missing the target badly.

That left two second-half substitutions to make the vital difference.

Albion lost a tidy central defender in Ibanez, while United sent on Javier Hernandez, who found to his delight at a corner 15 minutes from the end that no one had assumed responsibility for marking him, and headed in from close range.

"It was disappointing to concede a goal from that position," West Brom boss Roberto Di Matteo said. "Though not as disappointing at not getting the penalty in the first half. That was a clear foul from everybody's viewpoint, only the main man who is supposed to see it couldn't. A penalty could have changed the game but we can't do anything about it now."

A penalty may not have changed the game, of course. Odemwingie could have taken it. But United playing with 10 men for an hour would almost certainly have changed the game.

Neville appears to have a charmed life with referees this season, though his good fortune seems to rub off on his club. United's only other away win this season, at Stoke in October, featured a similar incident when Andre Marriner inexplicably allowed Neville to stay on the pitch when a dismissal looked inevitable.

Albion have every right to be disappointed.

As Di Matteo said, "I'm not saying we would have won the game with a first-half penalty and United down to 10 men but it would have been nice to find out."

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