West Bromwich Albion 0 Manchester United 3
United cruising to an easy victory has been an all too unfamiliar experience this season, but the Reds produced arguably their best Premiership performance to give themselves that luxury at the Hawthorns and run out comfortable winners thanks to goals from Jones, Rooney and Welbeck.
For once, we were playing a team on an even worse run of form than ours. West Brom hadn’t won a game since New Year’s Day and in the first half they looked predictably nervy, defending deep and with only intermittent forays into the United half.. The Reds fielded something very close to our best side, with Januzaj, Mata and Rooney tucked in behind Van Persie, with Evra and Rafael playing high up the pitch to provide width going forward. There were some clever inter-changes between the front four early in the game, though service from the wings was poor until Januzaj delivered a peach of a cross in the 29th minute to find the head of Rafael, whose header was tipped onto the bar by Ben Foster.
It was service from the other side that soon provided United with the breakthrough. Rafael was upended by Brunt on the right and, from the resulting free kick, Van Persie supplied a simple but deadly ball that found the head of Jones, who powered home unchallenged by the Baggies’ defence. Until then, West Brom had possessed no more than an occasional challenge on the break, usually supplied by the powerful Anichebe, but now they pushed forward with greater purpose; Yacob came close to levelling the scores when he rose to head just over the bar, as did Anichebe himself when he turned and fired a shot narrowly wide.
Despite those efforts, United remained the better team and a major decision went against them when Foster’s clear handball outside the box just before half-time was ignored by the officials. The hand denied Van Persie a clear goalscoring chance following a sublime cross-field ball from Mata and was a clear sending off offence. Apparently the ref didn’t give it because he didn’t regard it as deliberate handball, which is a curious interpretation. Foster allowed his arm to dangle and for the ball to hit it: that’s handball – ask Harry Kewell in the last World Cup.
West Brom fans felt similarly aggrieved when the ref failed to show a second yellow card to Van Persie after a classic forward’s tackle just outside the home team’s area: although the Dutchman got a foot to the ball, there was no questioning the clumsiness of the challenge. The incident raised the volume in the stadium and preceded a frenetic period of play in which both sides came close to scoring. Anichebe fired a dangerous effort across the United area, which Mata half-cleared before Carrick supplied an uncompromising block when the ball was returned. Soon after, it was United’s turn to be thwarted when Fellaini’s shot found the body of a Baggies defender between it and the goal.
It was the Reds, however, who continued to look the more composed, with Fellaini and Carrick showing signs of gelling as a central midfield partnership and closing a firm door on most of West Brom’s attempts to get forward. It gave a secure platform from which United could produce the simple but devastating move that brought a crucial second goal, Rooney laying the ball off wide to Rafael before meeting the full-back’s cross to double the lead in emphatic style. Rooney was involved again in the third, supplying the final stage of a lengthy passing move to put in Welbeck, a substitute for Van Persie, who grabbed his tenth goal of the season with a sweet finish.
A win against weak opponents, perhaps, but there was no denying we saw more glimpses of the old United in this game than has been the case for a long time. Alongside the dominant performance in midfield and some impressive passing moves further up the field we can place a third consecutive clean sheet in the Premiership. There are, of course, some much bigger games on the horizon, but something close to the starting XI today keeping fit for the rest of the campaign might give David Moyes an opportunity to see out the remainder of the season on an unanticipated high.