Robin van Persie came off the bench to ease any Manchester United nerves as he scored late to secure his side a 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday.
For much of the encounter it appeared as though the visitors were suffering a hangover from the busy festive period as they offered little resistance. When United took the lead through Gareth McAuley’s own goal inside 10 minutes, it looked like it would be an incredibly comfortable afternoon for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
But with Danny Welbeck, supported by the returning Shinji Kagawa, leading the line, United too lacked sharpness to put the game away. Eventually West Brom did apply some pressure, but United were able to hold firm before Van Persie struck in the final minute to ensure United preserved their seven point lead atop the Premier League table.
Coming into the fixture without the impressive midfield duo of Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, West Brom lacked any bite in their side and allowed their opponents far too much time and space on the ball.
There was little surprise when West Brom went behind after nine minutes. Steve Clarke will have been frustrated at his side’s failure to intercept a one-two between Kagawa and Ashley Young, allowing the latter to flash a ball across goal that cannoned off the knee of McAuley and arrowed through the legs of former United keeper Ben Foster.
While not at their free-flowing best, United did have chances to add to their lead inside the opening period. Michael Carrick came particularly close to getting his first Premier League goal of the season as he first had a powerful shot blocked by West Brom youngster George Thorne, before a goalmouth scramble ended with Carrick having a low shot blocked off the line by McAuley.
Young also came close to getting on the score sheet himself as his fierce shot from the edge of the area was tipped onto the cross bar by Foster.
West Brom’s only attacking talking point in the first 45 minutes came as Shane Long went down in the penalty area from a challenge by Chris Smalling. It appeared that there was a decent case for a penalty, although the fact that the forward made a clear move across his opponent meant that the referee probably made the right call.
West Brom, who had won back-to-back fixtures coming in, could only get better after the break and so it proved. Chris Brunt hit a long-range shot straight at David de Gea, before Gabriel Tamas had their best opportunity to equalize, but got his header all wrong at the back post from a free-kick.
Despite the visitors’ trying to apply the pressure throughout the second period, Sir Alex Ferguson will doubtless be delighted that his defense, led by Nemanja Vidic, were able to negate the remaining minutes without conceding any clear-cut chances.
And in attack, United always have the ability to cause problems. Welbeck produced a fine save from Foster before Van Persie again displayed his importance to United this season.
Allowed to cut inside form the right corner of the area, the Dutchman struck a wonderful curling effort with his favored left foot to beat Foster and take him top of the Premier League scoring charts.
It was a professional rather than spectacular performance from United and after the drama of recent weeks, that maybe the perfect early birthday present for Ferguson, who turns 71 on New Year’s Eve.