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Robin van Persie’s 14th Barclays Premier League goal of the season ensured Manchester United claimed yet another scalp on their march towards what they hope will be a 20th league title at Old Trafford as they beat West Bromwich Albion 2-0.
Yet the performance of skipper Nemanja Vidic was equally notable as he guided United to only their fourth Premier League clean sheet of the season after Gareth McAuley’s early own goal had put the hosts in front.
Plagued by injury for the past 16 months, and restored to the United line-up for the only the second time since his most recent knee operation, Vidic used all of his experience to ensure the hosts were not made to pay for a lacklustre second-half display.
When Van Persie curled in a brilliant effort in the final minute, the Red Devils’ handsome seven-point lead at the top of the table was preserved.
United had got their noses in front courtesy of McAuley, who could only divert a bullet cross from Ashley Young into his own net. It might have been more as Vidic sent a two headers wide and Gabriel Tamas turned away Michael Carrick’s goalbound shot.
The nearest United came to doubling their lead was when Young strode onto a deflected Antonio Valencia cross. He hit it sweetly on the half-volley, only for former Red Devils goalkeeper Ben Foster to respond with a brilliant save, which earned a slice of good fortune when he shoved the ball onto the crossbar and over.
Danny Welbeck – afforded a rare start in a central striking berth – and Shinji Kagawa, back for the first time since suffering a knee injury in October, both sparkled for the hosts, who were dominant.
Vidic has been absent so often over the past 15 months it has almost been forgotten what a calming influence he is. The Serbian’s courage is unquestioned too, and when Chris Brunt drilled a free-kick goalwards in the final throes of the opening period, it was no surprise Vidic should be the one to emerge from a crowd of bodies having headed it away.
However, with the clock ticking by and heavy rain continuing to pour down on a sodden surface that required a precautionary inspection a couple of hours before kick-off, United started to get stuck.
Young completely miskicked when Valencia’s cross presented a golden opportunity on the hour, which offered a Baggies outfit already growing in self-belief more reason for optimism. Had Brunt’s piledriver been either side of David de Gea it surely would have brought the visitors level. As it was, the shot went straight to the Spain keeper.
Little wonder Van Persie’s arrival midway through the second period was greeted with such enthusiasm, underlining the Dutchman’s influence since his summer move from Arsenal.
West Brom were in the mood, though. With United’s passing becoming increasingly wayward, Steve Clarke’s side continued to push on with force.
Vidic needed to be in the right place to clear a Romelu Lukaku cross that threatened panic inside the United six-yard box and the sight of his fellow defenders throwing themselves at anything that moved, was evidence the contest had turned into a backs-to-the-wall effort so unlike the thrill-a-minute action this stadium has become used to.
Van Persie was denied by Foster with nine minutes remaining but the former England keeper could do nothing about the Dutchman’s late shot, which curled into the top corner from Paul Scholes’s pass.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: “[Robin van Persie] is a fantastic player. He came on and changed the game for us. Every time the ball came up to him he got hold of it and turned on them. They were having to go back to their box all the time and he has done well."
"They were a very resilient, stubborn team. They worked really hard on their defending and closed all their ranks. You have to deal with that but the slowness of the pitch killed our speed a bit."
[Tuesday’s Barclays Premier League match against Wigan Athletic] will be a hard game. But, hopefully, we can freshen up again. Possibly Phil Jones will be ready and Rafael will be ready. We rested Javier Hernandez today, and also Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, so we have enough freshness to bring in."
West Bromwich Albion manager Steve Clarke: "Ben Foster made some good saves. That's why we spent our whole transfer budget on Ben in the summer.
“It is not demoralising. The fact they had to bring some of their big guns off the bench shows how well we were doing. In the first we were too timid. We spoke at half-time about being too respectful and, in the end, the scoreline doesn't reflect the way we played.
"We used to play on pitches like that all the time. It is part and parcel of the game. You don't look for games to be called off for no reason and there was no reason today."
|01 Jan 2013||v Wigan (A)|
|13 Jan 2013||v Liverpool (H)|
|20 Jan 2013||v Tottenham (A)|
|30 Jan 2013||v Southampton (H)|
|02 Feb 2013||v Fulham (A)|
|10 Feb 2013||v Everton (H)|