Manchester United moved three points clear in the Premier League with a hard-fought win over West Bromwich Albion. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men were far from their best but headed goals from Wayne Rooney – his first from open play since March – and Javier Hernández earned a narrow victory at the Hawthorns.
With rivals Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City kicking off later, United took advantage of the lunchtime fixture to re-establish a lead at the head of the Premier League table. It was from a vintage United performance though, with the Reds lucky to retain all 11 players on the pitch and the side’s passing poor.
But a stunning performance from Rooney dragged Ferguson’s side to only a second Premier League victory on the road this season. It’s a result, according to Ferguson, which could drive United towards the title.
“It was a really tough game. They’re a very good football team, they’re refreshing and proved that today,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“Over the years we’ve had to battle out games and we had to do that today – it’s a great result.
“In the second half there were moments when we started to play a but better but when we had to make changes with one or two injuries and we were just hanging on defensively.
“Wayne Rooney today was out of this world. He was fantastic, he drove us on. I’m very pleased for Wayne, he’s got his goal and that’s him off the mark. He’s jumping with confidence now, I’m really pleased for him.”
Ferguson made four changes to the United side that drew with Birmingham City on Boxing Day, including resting veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. With Ryan Giggs unwell and Nani not yet fit, Ferguson handed a rare start to French winger Gabriel Obertan and pushed Darren Fletcher into an unfamiliar wide role.
The changes created a dysfunctional United midfield, with both Michael Carrick and Anderson guilty of some wasteful passing and chances thin on the ground. The visitors defence was little better, with veteran Gary Neville frequently caught out of position.
Indeed, the hosts played far the better football in a first half that could have seen United reduced to 10 men. Neville, recalled at right-back, clumsily fouled Graham Dorrans with the veteran United’s last man and fortunate not to both concede a penalty and see red. Foy waved play on much to the hosts’ ire.
Yet United had taken the lead after just three minutes, with Rooney nodding home from Evra’s cross. The header seemed to have little power but crept inside Scott Carson’s right-hand post for just the striker’s third goal of a troubled season.
But the Baggies, whose attacking midfield dominated the centre of the park, were deservedly level on the quarter-hour when the impressive James Morrison hammered home a curling 20-yard shot. Captain Nemanja Vidic was culpable for not achieving greater distance on a defensive header but that takes away nothing from the quality of Morrison’s effort.
The former Middlesboro player, alongside midfielders Dorrans, Chris Brunt and Jerome Thomas, had United chasing shadows for much of the opening half. Brunt was unlucky with another long-range effort that dipped just over Tomasz Kuszczak’s bar.
If United was fortunate to go into the break even then the patter of the match changed little in the second half, with a repeated tactical changes doing little for Ferguson’s side.
The matched turned on two further incidents. First, Ferdinand – not having his best day at the office – clipped Thomas inside the area, with Nigerian Peter Odemwingie firing the resulting penalty wide. It took much of the wind out of the striker’s sails, who had previously offered ample support to West Brom’s impressive midfield.
Then, with Darron Gibson and Hernández on for the ineffective Dimitar Berbatov and Gabriel Obertan, United struck with 15 to go. Mexican striker Hernández nodded home Rooney’s corner for his fifth goal of a profitable first season in England.
“Credit to West Brom, they play some good football and they’re not scared to pass the ball,” said Ferdinand.
“You’ve got to dig deep in these games. These are the games you can make big ground in the league. You’ve got to win games, simple as that. I don’t care how we win. In these situations when you’re not at your best all that matters is the win.”
Indeed, United showed plenty of grit in playing poorly at the Hawthorns for a rare away victory this season. But in Rooney had the outstanding player on the pitch. The former Evertonian, who described 2010 as a “nightmare,” offered plenty of pace and penetration to an otherwise poor United performance.
“It was important that he [Rooney] got a goal,” added Ferdinand.
“I’m sure it was playing on his mind a little bit but he’s got his goal now. He gets in the position to score goals and he got one today.”
On this evidence Rooney could well fire United to a 19th domestic league title come May, with seven points from the festive programme and Stoke City to come on Tuesday night an excellent return for Ferguson’s men.
By the end Rooney was hobbling on the perennially injured left ankle although the word came back that the player will make Tuesday’s fixture. Fit or not, Rooney might just need a little more support from his team-mates in future.
West Brom – 451 – Carson; Cech, Pablo (Tchoyi 71), Scharner, Reid (Zuiverloon 64); Brunt, Morrison, Thomas, Mulumbu (Fortune 90+4), Dorrans; Odemwingie
United – 451 – Kuszczak; Neville (Fabio Da Silva 71), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Anderson, Carrick, Obertan (Gibson 60); Berbatov (Hernandez 60), Rooney.
Attendance – 25,499
Man of the Match – Rooney
Possession: West Brom 62% – 38% United
Attempts: 17 – 5
On Target: 8 – 3
Corners: 4 – 5
Fouls: 8 – 13