Friday 25 May 2018

United zero in on title goal

Clean sheet and revved-up Van keep Reds seven clear

ONCE he had left Alan Pardew metaphorically blooded and broken, Alex Ferguson finished his press conference by making an impassioned plea for some duller football. However entertaining the 4-3s and the 3-2s had been, he needed them to stop, for his own sake and Manchester United's.

This was a more routine scoreline but it was in its own way as skittish and unconvincing as the St Stephen's Day victory that had seen Ferguson harangue the match officials and then eviscerate Pardew when the Newcastle manager had questioned why the godfather of the Premier League had not been invited to spend more time in the directors' box.

Only when Robin van Persie scored his 33rd and last goal of the year, curling a delicious shot past Ben Foster, was the stadium able to relax. "They are a tough, stubborn team," Ferguson said of West Bromwich Albion, who had the bulk of possession in the second half but who did not possess a Van Persie.

Ferguson insisted he would not be spending anything in the January transfer window because his squad was "as good as any I have had in my time at Old Trafford". That may be a questionable statement given that this was only their third clean sheet of the season. However, it is hard to argue that many of his forwards have had quite the immediate impact of the artists' son from Rotterdam. Here he produced what his parents would recognise as a true cameo.

It was wishful thinking to imagine Ferguson would repeat the histrionics which had scarred a St Stephen's Day that had seen them go seven points clear of Manchester City, who on Saturday discovered the questionable pleasures of the 4-3 win. He is an assassin who selects his target, carries out his hit and moves on.

Perhaps because of the endless rain, perhaps because he recognised this might be an afternoon for a low profile, Ferguson wrapped himself in his dug-out until 10 minutes from the end of a game that West Brom might have snatched something from had they worked David De Gea harder.

He almost slipped as he mounted the bank to join his assistant, Mike Phelan, protested why a foul on Danny Welbeck had not been given and paced his technical area like a headmaster invigilating an exam. It was one his boys passed, if not by very much.

The referee was Jon Moss, a 32-year-old from Sunderland who was making his first professional visit to Old Trafford. "He continues to go about his season in a quiet manner with little controversy," the one-time referee, Graham Poll, had written in his Saturday column. "I expect that to continue as the home manager should be on his best behaviour." Poll was proved absolutely correct.

The West Brom manager, Steve Clarke, had thought he might leave Old Trafford with something. He didn't, although it went better than his last match as a manager here that saw him take charge of a Newcastle side that had been wrecked by a civil war between Alan Shearer and Ruud Gullit. It was 13 years ago and he had lost 5-1.

Now, they were a goal down before 10 minutes had counted down on Old Trafford's thin scoreboard. Shinji Kagawa was given his first start since breaking down with a knee injury more than two months ago. He began brightly and it was his pass that produced the breakthrough. Graham Dorrans attempted to intercept it but steered the ball straight to Ashley Young. Gareth McAuley stuck out his own leg to cut out the low cross that followed but deflected it between his keeper and Foster's near post.

If things had run differently, Foster might have become Manchester United's goalkeeper for the long term. He proved this ability by tipping a shot delivered at furious speed on the half volley by Young on to the bar and into the steepling banks of the Stretford End.

The crowd scented a rout that never arrived and those from the Midlands began singing: "We're going to win 5-3", a reference to their last victory at Old Trafford in December 1978 which since it fell slap in the middle of a journalists' strike made fewer headlines than it might.

The pitch looked like something left over from the Winter of Discontent. Manchester is always wet but over Christmas it had been drowning and the pitch had to survive two inspections.

It was not quite like the Baseball Ground under Brian Clough but it cut up badly and hampered everybody. In the second half, Gabriel Tamas made two attempts to make a routine clearance and connected with neither. Manchester United seemed to cope better but when Antonio Valencia delivered a low cross to Young's feet, the shot met only sodden air.

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