MAN UNITED 0, WEST BROM 1
Suddenly Manchester United’s grip on a top-four place, to qualify for the Champions League, has loosened following a third successive Premier League defeat.
The Reds followed the defeats by Chelsea and Everton with a disappointing loss against West Brom who won at Old Trafford for the second successive season.
And it was a result which leaves United with only a four-point advantage over fifth-placed Liverpool with three games remaining which are Crystal Palace and Hull City away and Arsenal at home.
Though United enjoyed a remarkable 80-per-cent possession, the second-highest figure by any club in the Premier League era, they failed miserably to turn that into goals.
Indeed, this was the third successive match in which they failed to find the net, the worst sequence since 2007. And it was the first time since 2001 that United had lost three successive Premier League games.
It was a frustrating evening as United huffed the puffed, but lacked conviction in front of goal as the Baggies defended well to record the win which effectively removes any faint threat of relegation.
And when the Reds found a way through their defence, they found reserve keeper Boaz Myhill unstoppable as he produced a man-of-the-match display, including a fabulous penalty save to deny Robin van Persie.
Reds’ manager Louis van Gaal spoke of the frustration after West Brom came to “park the bus”.
He said: “It was difficult to attack because they had a lot of bodies in front of you and you have less time. It is not easy, but nevertheless we created chance to score and we didn’t give away a lot in defence and were reasonably good.
“Then you wait on the finishing and in the second half we created a lot of chances, and the only time they came the middle line they won a free kick and scored with a deflection.
“You cannot say we were the lucky team today. And as my friend Jose Mourinho has said before, it is more difficult to attack than defend, and it is not always the attacking team which wins.
“We may be had 80-per-cent of ball possession, but they had 80-per-cent of time to break us. And for all the possession we had in the second half, it was blowing with the wind.”
Van Gaal added that losing three games in a row has made it a “little more difficult” to finish in the top four, though they are still four points clear of Liverpool.
“I have always said, and nobody has believed me, that it will be a rat race to the end, even when we were seven points ahead. I am aware of that, as are my players,” he continued.
The Reds’ manager added his side needs to retain confidence and also be more clinical in front of goal, pointing out it would be worse if they weren’t creating them.
“I have seen a lot of good things which I will show the players in my evaluation, and I will also show them the things they need to improve,” he said.
Van Gaal also praised West Brom for their excellent organisation and keeper Boaz Myhill for making three fantastic saves.
Baggies’ manager Tony Pulis praised his players for their resilience and the way they executed their game plan adding they still needed a slice of luck.
Pulis added it was difficult playing at 5.30pm and knowing other teams at the bottom had won pointing out one of his players was following other games which he was not happy about.
“It was a distraction knowing how other results had gone, but we had to concentrate on the job we had in hand,” he said.
After two successive league defeats, there was an added edge to the game as United could ill afford another loss as suddenly a top-four finish was beginning to look anything but a certainty.
And with teams at the bottom winning, West Brom were also suddenly in need points to prevent them from being sucked back into the relegation quicksand as Darren Fletcher made a sentimental first return to Old Trafford following his move to the Baggies.
Van Persie returned to United’s starting line-up for the first time in 10 weeks after recovering from an ankle injury. The Dutchman for the injured Luke Shaw was the one change from the side which lost at Everton on Sunday as Daley Blind slotted into the left-back spot.
The Reds’ players wore black armbands in memory of the death of Rio Ferdinand’s wife Rebecca who lost a three-month battle against cancer, And in the fifth minute – the former defender’s number – there was a highly emotional standing ovation and chanting his name in a show of solidarity from the fans whose thoughts were with the player.
After a low-key opening, the game suddenly flickered to life with two decent chances falling to van Persie in quick succession as a shot was turned away by the diving Boaz Myhill and another effort flew narrowly wide at the near post.
Joleon Lescott and Youssouf Mulumbu had goal attempts for the Baggies, but both could only direct headers straight at keeper David De Gea.
But after that flurry of activity in a four-minute spell, the game lapsed back into a struggle as both sides cancelled out one another as stalemate prevailed.
The start to the second period was equally lukewarm as United toiled in their bid to make a breakthrough.
When the stalemate was broken, it was the Baggies who snatched a 63rd minute lead after United conceded a free kick just outside the box when Fletcher was brought down by Paddy McNair who was booked.
And to add insult to injury, Chris Brunt’s free kick was going wide until it deflected off Jonas Olsson and looped into the net.
Van Gaal immediately brought on Angel Di Maria for Blind as they went in search of an equaliser and they were furious when they were not awarded a penalty when Juan Mata’s cross clearly struck the arm of Lescott.
There was drama when United were awarded a 72nd minute penalty after Antonio Valencia’s cross struck the arm of Saido Berahino. Referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot only for the Baggies’ players to protest it was outside the box.
Mr Taylor consulted with his assistant before confirming it was a penalty which saw van Persie’s kick kept out by Myhill diving low to his left.
Van Persie was denied by Myhill again not long after when he flung himself low to his right to turn away his free kick.
And van Persie thought he had equalised in the last minute when his 25-yard shot was superbly turned away by Myhill diving low to his left.
Then in the second of four minutes of added time Myhill pulled off another super stop to turn over a piledriver from Di Maria as it was clearly destined not to be United’s day.