MANCHESTER // It has been customary for opposing supporters to taunt the Manchester United faithful about the lack of noise at Old Trafford.
Occasionally and sometimes in strange circumstances, however, it can be a deafening place.
While Wayne Rooney's match-winning brace met with understandable cheers, the roar was reserved for a goal scored some 230 miles away by a rather less heralded striker. For the first, and probably only time, Luke Moore was the toast of Manchester's red half.
Victory over West Bromwich Albion was only what they expected. Swansea's defeat of Manchester City, clinched by Moore, added the element of surprise. It restored United to the Premier League peak and rewarded them for a dogged, determined pursuit of their rivals.
They trailed City by five points nine days ago. Now they lead by one, clear at the top having played the same number of games for the first time since October and, after winning seven of their last eight league game, the possessors of that most valuable of assets, momentum.
They may be uncharacteristically uncertain in Europe but United have proved resolutely familiar in England. Their challenge tends to gather pace in the season's final months and Albion were duly demolished by an in-form side.
With Phil Jones marauding on the right flank, Ashley Young excelling on the left and Rooney a coruscating presence in the centre of the park, Sir Alex Ferguson's charges purred.
"We we played some fantastic football," said the manager. "We should have scored a lot of goals."
Indeed, the margin of victory should have been far greater. Had Danny Welbeck not contrived to miss an open goal, shooting wide when a Paul Scholes pass travelled fully 50 yards without intervention from Albion, had Javier Hernandez's shot, which rebounded off the inside of the post, been a matter of inches more accurate, had Welbeck, Young or Rooney taken one of the host of other chances, it would have been a rout.
Quantity eluded United, but their opener contained quality in abundance. When Hernandez, the penalty-box poacher, made a rare venture on to the right wing, he still shot. Except that Rooney turned the Mexican's effort into a cross, breaking beyond the Albion defence to extend a leg and wrong-foot Ben Foster with his volleyed finish. "An excellent goal," said Ferguson. "The timing of his run was fantastic."
It was his 14th goal in as many games, extending Rooney's rich vein of form. "He gets on these hot streaks," Ferguson said. A 26th strike of the season followed, Rooney sending Foster the wrong way from the penalty spot after Keith Andrews tugged back the rampant Young. "If he gets to 40 [goals], I'll be absolutely delighted because then we'll be in business," said Ferguson, setting his striker a daunting target.
Albion had already been reduced to 10 men. Jonas Olsson collected cautions for fouling each of the United strike force, first Rooney and then Hernandez.
"The real decisive point was Jonas' sending-off," said Roy Hodgson, the Albion manager.
His side had begun well, with Andrews twice having a chance to open the scoring. Yet his afternoon concluded with the concession of a penalty. Others struggled. A central defender standing in at right-back, Gabriel Tamas was tormented by the tricky Young. The winger appears to be peaking when it matters most. "He has come back to form," said Ferguson. So, too, have his team.
"I don't care about being top of the league," said the winner of 12 titles. For once, the supporters may disagree. The ultimate prize belongs to the side at the summit on May 13, but in the meantime, United can savour the sight as they look down on City.