Wayne Rooney struck in either half to give United a comfortable victory over 10-man West Brom and move the Reds to the top of the Barclays Premier League table.
Having survived a strong opening from Roy Hodgson’s on-song Baggies, United took control of an entertaining game midway through the first period and rarely looked like slipping up after Rooney diverted home Chicharito’s shot.
The England striker then clinically converted a penalty after the lively Ashley Young had been felled, by which point Jonas Olsson had been sent off for garnering two yellow cards. United’s victory took on added significance when news filtered through that Manchester City had lost at Swansea City.
Sir Alex Ferguson had publicly pondered his team selection after Thursday’s Europa League defeat to Athletic Club, with next week’s decisive trip to Bilbao looming large. United’s focus on domestic matters became apparent with the returning experience of Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes,while Danny Welbeck’s inclusion on the right flank hinted at the hosts’ attacking intent.
It was the visitors, however, who forged the game’s first opening of note. After James Morrison pinched possession midway inside the United half, Liam Ridgewell curled a fine cross into the hosts’ six-yard box, where the onrushing Keith Andrews could only steer the ball wide of De Gea’s goal.
Only a terrific block from Evans prevented Marc-Antoine Fortune from unleashing a shot deep inside the hosts’ area, while Morrison blazed the rebound comfortably over the bar. United’s first attempt came from Ashley Young after a weaving run from Welbeck, but the winger’s shot was batted away by ex-Red Ben Foster.
It was De Gea who remained the busier of the two goalkeepers in a free-flowing opening to the game, however, and the Spaniard needed to be alert to drop to his right and push Andrews’ low, deflected free-kick around the post as the visitors’ menace remained.
Roy Hodgson’s side, buoyed by successive victories over Wolves, Sunderland and Chelsea, were impressively tenacious; pressing United all over the field, regrouping swiftly in defence and always looking to exploit the Reds’ commitment to attack with swift counters of their own.
Welbeck’s sharp start to the game made him one of the leading contenders to inspire a breakthrough for United. He powered Young’s in-swinging corner over the bar with a back-post header, then released Young with an impudent back-heel. Though the winger reached the ball before the onrushing Foster, Jonas Olsson was on-hand to clear the cross before whipping the ball to the back post, where Rooney failed to gain sufficient purchase on his volley to do any more than tamely direct it to Foster.
There would be no such charity with the striker’s next act, 10 minutes before the break. A sustained spell of United pressure culminated in Scholes spreading the ball wide to Chicharito. The Mexican cut inside Ridgwell and arrowed a left-footed shot towards goal, but Rooney intercepted the ball’s flight and diverted it beyond the committed Foster.
Old Trafford’s atmosphere was sufficiently cranked up by the goal, and maintained by an impressive end to the half from United. Jones headed into the side-netting from another deep Young cross, while Welbeck only narrowly failed to reach Evra’s pull-back after an incisive move down the Reds’ left flank.
For all the end-to-end excellence of the first period, however, the second period began with a muted five-minute period before bursting into life thereafter. Peter Odemwingie was convinced he should have had a penalty after tumbling under a perceived challenge from Evra, but United immediately hit back.
Rooney led a counter-attack while Odemwingie was still appealing. The ball was slipped inside to Chicharito, and the Mexican unleashed a shot which thundered against the top of Foster’s post and rebounded to safety. The striker’s wry grin betrayed his misfortune.
Young was again involved in Rooney’s first opening of the game. The winger profited on fine industry from Patrice Evra and Javier Hernandez.
The chance heralded a glut of chances for the Reds. Rooney’s left-footed overhead kick went straight to Foster, as did a near-post flick from Chicharito, before Scholes’ superb ball over the top released Welbeck. Though Foster mis-read the flight of the ball and presented the striker with an untended goal, Welbeck stretched and dragged his left-footed shot agonisingly wide of the post.
United’s pursuit of a second goal was aided when Olsson, earlier booked for a challenge on Rooney, unceremoniously halted Chicharito’s progress and earned a second caution. The Reds immediately pushed on. Evra was denied a penalty when his shot struck Gabriel Tamas’ arm, but referee Lee Probert was less forgiving when Andrews, pushed to right-back, clumsily stopped Young’s run near the byline.
Rooney confidently swept the spot-kick into Foster’s bottom right-hand corner, sending his former colleague the wrong way. Sir Alex Ferguson’s response was swift: introducing Paul Pogba at the expense of Scholes, while Roy Hodgson duly traded Andrews and Chris Brunt for Nicky Shorey and Paul Scharner. The changes continued apace, as Tom Cleverley replaced Welbeck and Fortune made way for Shane Long.
The latter soon looked to make his mark, latching onto Mulumbu’s through-ball and thrashing a shot towards De Gea’s near post. While the Irishman had embarrassed the Spaniard on the opening day of the Premier League season, the United stopper ensured no repeat with a fine save.
As United sought to assure victory, Young headed off-target from Chicharito’s superb cross and the Mexican then skewed his shot well over the bar from close range, but the Old Trafford roof was almost lifted off by events in another country, with the news from Wales that Manchester City were trailing Swansea.
United opted to see out the final few minutes in comfort, rather than try and press home their advantage. Within the wider war, another key battle had been won. With 10 games to go in the title race, the champions now lead the way.
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