Welbeck breathes life into United's challenge
Norwich City 0 Manchester United 1
The old red freight train is rumbling ominously back to life. Midwinter has traditionally been anything but bleak for Manchester United, and Danny Welbeck's fortuitous goal to thwart a resilient Norwich underlined their signature quality of winning while at a pale shadow of their best.
David Moyes was nothing if not honest when he acknowledged that this victory, accomplished in the absence of star strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, was "nothing to shout about".
Two wins on the road in three days has helped reinvigorate United's moribund season, and yet neither has been in the least convincing.
Where the victory at Hull contained plenty of panache, this was horribly error-strewn, with half-time substitute Welbeck relying on a piece of outrageous good luck to sabotage Norwich's noble efforts. One deflection off Ryan Bennett was all it required for the England forward, staking a claim to disrupt the Rooney-Van Persie axis at his club, to steal in for the decisive strike. "Danny's performance changed the game," Moyes admitted. "He's a really good player who needs to become a really good finisher, and here he did."
But it was still striking how timid United were in making their superiority more emphatic. In added minutes Ashley Young wasted time with maximum cynicism, shrugging at referee Phil Dowd as he repeatedly feigned to take a free-kick.
Norwich fans howled in indignation, although their team could contrive no way back, paying a heavy price for first-half profligacy in succumbing to a second straight home defeat. After a dismal Christmas campaign manager Chris Hughton looks a man besieged once more. One late change, as he replaced Gary Hooper -- fresh from four goals in his previous four games -- with Ricky van Wolfswinkel, was greeted with vociferous boos.
With Norwich only three points above the relegation places heading into 2014, the Carrow Road boardroom is not the place for festive joie de vivre.
For United, in sixth but only two points adrift of Liverpool last night, the immediate prognosis is more positive, with Rooney due to return for the New Year's Day match against Tottenham after recovering from an adductor strain in his groin. Moyes, indicated, however, that United were unlikely to make any moves in next month's transfer window to enliven their static midfield. "We won't be doing a lot of business," he said. "Most of the players won't be available in January." Shorn of both Rooney and Van Persie, still out with a thigh injury, United looked painfully exposed as they struggled to exert a grip on the game.
Norwich, sensing blood, unleashed a first-half bombardment with Robert Snodgrass at its heart. At his best this set-piece specialist can be a devil to contain, and so it proved when he whipped in a powerful free-kick to David de Gea's far post, only to be thwarted from the follow-up as Nemanja Vidic scrambled to clear.
The pressure built, with Norwich leading United 6-0 on the corner count during a curiously lopsided first half. Even Ryan Giggs appeared ruffled, receiving a yellow card for lying on the turf to block Snodgrass' run into the area. The normally mild-mannered Javier Hernandez was booked for backchat as United's players muttered their discontent. Their relief, though, lay in the home side's repeated failure to press home a clear early advantage: first Wes Hoolahan fired in, then some deft interchanges in the Norwich ranks culminated in Russell Martin dragging his shot fractionally wide.
Everywhere there were lapses to trouble Moyes, with Shinji Kagawa distinguished solely by his anonymity and Patrice Evra, given the slip more than once by Snodgrass, enduring a torrid afternoon at left-back. The manager reacted immediately by replacing the ineffectual Giggs, starting to betray the effects of 'anno domini' at 40, with Welbeck, slotting in behind Hernandez to provide an alternative outlet. As Norwich tossed away yet another chance when Nathan Redmond's strike flashed in front of the posts, the suspicion was that United would soon capitalise through a dose of fortune, inspiration or both.
Their moment duly arrived when an unfortunate deflection off Bennett cannoned straight into the path of Welbeck, who bore down on Norwich's goal with panther-like stealth to round goalkeeper John Ruddy and angle his finish calmly into the open net. The team's sustained celebrations in front of the travelling support underlined the value of his intervention. United under Moyes were at last exhibiting that Ferguson-bred quality of winning on their less stellar days.
Still they invited peril by their tentativeness, allowing Norwich the chance of a riposte when young substitute Josh Murphy let fly with a 20-yard shot after fine set-up work by Hoolahan. But a dynamic Welbeck, showing up a lightweight Hernandez, continued to be the difference between the sides.
Hughton argued: "It was a game we certainly didn't deserve to lose. Over 90 minutes I felt that we were the better team." In one sense he was correct and yet United, pouncing on a single frailty with splendid opportunism, did enough to suggest they might be recapturing the gifts of old.