Below par league leaders grind out second away win of the season
Javier Hernandez proved to be Manchester United’s saviour once again, scoring the winner at the Hawthorns from a header after West Bromwich Albion had failed to punish the title favourites from the penalty spot, with Peter Odemwingie scuffing his effort wide.
Wayne Rooney had earlier stopped his drought of goals from open play with a header in the second minute before James Morrison equalised with a stunning effort 10 minutes later.
Two minutes was all it took for Manchester United to break the deadlock, and what a relief it will be to Wayne Rooney, who scored his first goal from open play since March, a barren spell of 1,418 minutes.
It came as a result of some good wing-play from Gabriel Obertan, in for his first away start for Manchester United, as he laid the ball off for Patrice Evra to cross in for Rooney, who stooped to head in from eight yards.
Rooney scored 10 Premier League goals with his head last season, but this one seemed to take everyone by surprise, especially Scott Carson, as it crept into the bottom corner.
James Morrison got West Brom back level only 10 minutes later, however, with a fantastic half-volley from the edge of the area that arced into the top corner of Tomas Kuszczak’s goal, leaving the former West Brom goalkeeper with no chance of stopping it.
The goal seemed to come from nothing, a long ball headed down by Nemanja Vidic, but Evra seemed to lose Morrison, and the winger made him pay in stunning fashion.
West Brom were confident on the ball in the first 20 minutes, breaking well and causing United plenty of trouble, whereas United seemed to have a New Year’s Day hangover, not moving the ball fluently at all.
Obertan was their most positive outlet, his pace and dribbling giving the makeshift right-back Steven Reid a torrid time.
However, at the back Gary Neville was lucky to escape a red card on his 400th Manchester United appearance, bringing down Graeme Dorrans when he was through on goal. Yet referee Chris Foy somehow believed that the right-back took the ball, when it was clear to everyone else that he hadn’t.
The real problem for United was how easy it was for the Baggies to carve through the middle of the defence with a long-ball; a seemingly straightforward method which split them all too easily on more than one occasion.
Foy was having a bad half, as two West Brom players collided, leaving Dimitar Berbatov to pick up the loose ball, only for Foy to somehow give a free-kick against the Bulgarian.
To say West Brom were on top in the first half would be a huge understatement. They were battering United, and were unlucky to go in at half-time on level terms with the league leaders.
West Brom almost took the lead in the 53rd minute, as a cleverly worked corner routine led to Paul Scharner aiming a header just wide.
United had come out a better side after half-time though, no doubt the recipients of Sir Alex Ferguson’s infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment.
That’s not to say that they were forcing their will on the team from the Black Country, but they were putting more pressure on the Baggies, and seemed to be more comfortable in possession.
West Brom then shot themselves in the foot, as they were justly awarded a penalty, despite Rio Ferdinand’s protests, as he brought down Jerome Thomas in the box.
Peter Odemwingie stepped up and scuffed his shot horribly wide, with an audible gasp from the home support as they saw perhaps their best chance to beat Manchester United go begging.
Ferguson had made changes, taking off the disappointing Berbatov and Obertan for Hernandez and Darron Gibson, going for a strange 4-4-2 formation featuring four central midfielders.
Roberto Di Matteo, however, was forced into changes as first Steven Reid, then Pablo Ibanez succumbed to injury, leaving an already makeshift West Brom defence on its last legs in terms of genuine replacements.
Despite the inexperience of West Brom’s defence, Di Matteo will have been seething as poor marking from a corner left Hernandez unmarked to score with his head right in front of Carson.
There were worrying signs for Rooney in the closing stages as he was forced to go off injured following a bad challenge from Chris Brunt. Rooney was fit enough to walk off the pitch, and later re-appear, but was obviously still carrying an injury.Five minutes of injury time was not enough for West Brom, as they could not break down a resolute United defence, and they will know that it was both an opportunity wasted and more
Indeed the hosts hadn’t pressed with any of the dominance of their first-half display, but will still feel aggrieved not to have picked up at least a point as the league leaders were again well below par in their travels.
United may be concerned about how difficult they found it against opposition they should be beating, but they will gladly take the three points that they scarcely deserved, perhaps showing the true mark of champions by grinding out a result when under real pressure.
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