Comebacks used to be Manchester United's specialist subject. Rather than a source of pride now, however, they are grounds to rue missed opportunities.
Schoolboy errors cost United
Manchester United 2 // West Bromwich 2
Man United Hernandez 05’, Nani 25’
West Brom Evra (og) 50’, Tchoyi 55’
Man of the match Nani (Manchester United)
MANCHESTER // Comebacks used to be Manchester United's specialist subject. Rather than a source of pride now, however, they are grounds to rue missed opportunities.
For the third time this season, a lead was lost, points squandered and Sir Alex Ferguson left lamenting the new-found fragility of his side.
But West Bromwich Albion are fast establishing a reputation for upsetting their supposed superiors. Winning 3-2 at the Emirates Stadium last month against Arsenal looked a one-off. Instead it proved the prelude to a memorable fightback at Old Trafford.
Two goals adrift at the interval, they rallied remarkably to salvage a point and threaten victory. If every underdog has its day, Albion have had two against members of the "Big Four".
A Patrice Evra own goal was followed by a Somen Tchoyi strike, both proof of character from the promoted team, but both eminently avoidable from a United perspective.
Five minutes into the second half, Chris Brunt drilled in a low free kick from an acute angle on the right wing.
Amid chaotic scenes in the United box, the ball took a touch off Evra, Edwin van der Sar attempted to claw it back and, whether or not it had already crossed the line, Jonas Olsson ensured there was no doubt about the validity of the goal by poking the ball in.
If it was hard to fault Van der Sar then, his culpability was beyond dispute a few minutes later.
While Paul Scharner's industry in charging down Rafael's attempted clearance was admirable, Brunt's cross was less impressive, hoisted towards the Dutchman. However, the usual paragon of reliability spilled it in the manner of a fumbling child.
Tchoyi, scarcely believing his luck, capped his first league start for the club by opening his account in England.
"Edwin has been playing for 25 years. The last time he made a mistake like that was probably in primary school," argued Ferguson. An individual error it was, but it continued a worrying trend.
Having seen points slip away at Fulham and at Everton and squandered two-goal leads both at Goodison Park and against Liverpool - even though that match was ultimately won, this is becoming an unfortunate habit from United.
"We can't keep doing that," Ferguson said. "We're very frustrated with it."
His complaint was of a lack of ruthlessness.
"Where it should have been 5-0 at half time, we went in at 2-0," he added. "There's been many times: at Everton it should have been five or six, it should have been three or four at Fulham. We are losing points. It's inexplicable."
Explanations are feasible, though.
Roberto Di Matteo, Albion's nonchalant manager, felt the fightback was typical of his team.
"It shows team spirit, it shows personality," he said. "We never give up and that is my philosophy. I want my players to fight."
The initial focus for United was on both a sidelined striker and his replacement. After publicly contradicting his manager's view that he had been suffering from an ankle injury, Wayne Rooney was left on the bench.
His deputy, Javier Hernandez, scored in the first, but lesser, of the game's goalkeeping errors. Nani's free kick was not the most venomous in the Portuguese's armoury. Scott Carson nonetheless contrived to drop it directly in front of Hernandez. The opportunity was accepted with relish.
The lead was doubled courtesy of a swift counter-attack. What initially appeared an unfortunate slip from Nicky Shorey swiftly became a second United goal. Nani pounced, driving infield, exchanging passes with Dimitar Berbatov and sweeping his shot into the net. Vidic subsequently hit the post.
In cruise control then, United made frantic attempts to hit top gear in their search for a winner. Ferguson had omitted last season's outstanding player (Rooney) as well as this season's finest, Paul Scholes.
He sent for both. Rooney had an effort cleared off the line by Gabriel Tamas.
It condemned United to a third successive draw and a fifth in eight games.
"For teams down the league, you say you're undefeated but for Manchester United, it's not good enough," Ferguson concluded.
It was a statement with which few disagreed.