In another season, the form displayed on Sunday night would have been championship-worthy. But perhaps not this term
Manchester United cement their grip over second place with win over West Brom
It is a distant pursuit, but Manchester United have not abandoned it. By beating West Bromwich Albion, they reduced the gap to Manchester City to a mere 11 points.
Perhaps more significantly, they cemented a grip on second place. In all probability, it is the best they can hope for now.
They looked a classic Jose Mourinho team when they seemed to kill off struggling opponents with two goals in nine first-half minutes, one from a staple of the Portuguese’s teams, a target man.
They scarcely resembled one when, having secured the 2-0 lead that has long felt Mourinho’s ideal scoreline, they afforded relegation-threatened opponents a route back into the game.
“Less ambition after the break,” Mourinho rationalised. “We controlled the game for a long, long time, then manager Alan Pardew reacts.”
It was an impressive reaction, featuring the introduction of the set-piece specialist Chris Brunt.
United were careless and nervous at points in the last quarter when both Jay Rodriguez and Barry threatened to score equalisers and when James McClean claimed a penalty when nudged by Ashley Young. Mourinho’s men were not entirely convincing, but the greatest damage done may prove to be the muscular injury that compelled him to withdraw Antonio Valencia.
That frenzied and spirited finale provided Albion with a first goal under Pardew, and a third United have conceded from set-pieces in as many games, when the substitute Barry prodded home. But they nevertheless set an unwanted club record.
They have now gone 16 games without a win and their sterility and lack of creativity is part of the sacked Tony Pulis’s legacy.
Pardew must hope Albion’s belated response provides the sort of belated new-manager bump enjoyed by two of his former employers, West Ham United and Crystal Palace. The comeback was fashioned by his own changes. The slow start, he argued, came from his mistakes.
“I think I played the wrong team,” he said. “We gave them nothing to shout about in the first half.”
Neither did United for 26 minutes.
The first attempt on target also brought the first goal. It was taken superbly, Romelu Lukaku leaping above Kieran Gibbs to head in Marcus Rashford’s cross. Lukaku barely celebrated his winner against Bournemouth on Wednesday.
An opener was greeted in similarly understated fashion, with Mourinho citing the striker’s fondness for his old club.
“I didn't celebrate, too,” he said, while insisting: “Nobody was happier than me.”
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It nevertheless seemed to reflect the mood around United. Perhaps, however, it indicates that Lukaku is back in the sort of scoring spree that he enjoyed rather more visibly at the start of the season.
After only netting twice in 14 games, he has scored in successive matches. But his efficiency against the lesser lights is nothing new. His 10 league goals have all have come against the bottom 11.
A second goal soon followed. Nemanja Matic again provided the initial impetus. Then Juan Mata teed up Jesse Lingard, whose shot took a telling deflection off Ahmed Hegazi to wrong-foot the former United keeper Ben Foster. It was his fourth goal in five league games as the out-of-favour Henrikh Mkhitaryan was not missed.
At that stage, United looked clinical and ruthless. If the eventual verdict was different, they still secured a sixth win in seven league games.
In another season, that may have been the form of champions. Probably not in this, however.