MAN UTD 2, WEST BROM 0
After the Boxing Day fireworks, this was the time to grind out a victory and Manchester United did just that against West Brom on a heavy Old Trafford pitch.
The satisfaction of achieving only their fourth clean sheet in the Premier League this season would have come as a relief to a team which went into the game with the joint worst defensive record in the top half of the table.
But it was not all plain sailing for the Reds. After being gifted an early lead, courtesy of Gareth McAuley’s own goal, United gave the Baggies hope of a point until Robin van Persie’s super strike in injury time.
Van Persie had started on the bench with United manager Sir Alex Ferguson opting to use Danny Welbeck as his lone striker. Shinji Kagawa, returning for his first senior game since injury in early October, played just behind the England man with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young wide on the flanks.
Michael Carrick was joined by Tom Cleverley in the centre of midfield and Ferguson opted for height in his back line with Nemanja Vidic back to join Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and the more diminutive Patrice Evra.
United’s ninth minute opening goal was a beautifully packed seasonal present from the Albion defence. Kagawa’s flick inside the Albion box found Young with time and space to fire in a low cross from the left which was jabbed into his own net by McAuley eight yards out on the near post.
The game seemed to go into limbo for the rest of the first half and what few chances there were fell to United.
West Brom goalkeeper Ben Foster did well to save Welbeck’s shot from the edge of the penalty area on his six-yard box, while the Reds had two bites of the cherry to double their lead in the 33rd minute.
Valencia’s cross from the right picked out Young on the edge of the box and his blistering first-time shot was brilliantly tipped on to the bar and over by Foster. Young’s resulting corner caused havoc in the Albion penalty area and Carrick’s shot was cleared from almost off the line by Gabriel Tamas.
United goalkeeper David De Gea made his first save of the game five minutes after the interval when he gathered Chris Brunt’s 25-yard effort on his line.
Albion probed and enjoyed considerable possession, but United defended tighter than at any other time this season, getting bodies in the way to deny the visitors.
The introduction of van Persie as a 66th minute replacement for Kagawa proved the catalyst for a Reds resurgence.
Young forced a good save from Foster at his near post and the Albion goalkeeper kept out a van Persie effort with his legs. Foster produced another superb effort to tip over Valencia’s fierce shot from close range, but he could do nothing to deny van Persie a minute into injury time.
Substitute Paul Scholes saw his initital shot from the left corner of the Albion penalty area blocked, but he managed to find Valencia from the rebound. The United winger turned the ball over to van Persie on the right corner of the box and he advanced a couple of yards before curling a glorious left-foot shot into the far top corner of the net for his 17th goal of the season.
United boss Ferguson said: “Van Persie is a fantastic player. He came on and changed the game for us. His goal was magnificent.
“The pitch was very hard work after all the rain and two games in three days. I thought we defended our crosses very well and I will freshen the team up a bit at Wigan on Tuesday.”