“I’d rather win ugly than lose pretty!”———-Bobby Bowden
Manchester United 2 -0 West Bromwich Albion
A lot of folks hate games like this last match of the year at Old Trafford, but, frankly, not me! I’m not just happy to see the Red Devils grind out an ugly win on a rainy Manc night, I’m bloody ecstatic. With skipper Nemanja Vidic having returned to his home spot as pivot after being gone for close to a year, United’s anemic defense finally seems to have received the disciplinary jolt it needed. Even the perpetually donkey-brained, positionally vacant Jonny Evans looked clearly both petrified and inspired by the presence of Vidic beside him and the determined Serb’s willingness to strategically place his boot up the Belfast bollix’s butt.
West Bromwich Albion, who have been at best diligent and slick and, at worse, snoringly defensive over the season so far, proved to be worthy opponents in the game’s second half. Playing without their awesome defensive line featuring James Morrison, Yussef Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, made the Baggies fairly toothless, yet they still managed to give United a scare.. Nevertheless, the bottom line, especially if you asked Sir Alex Ferguson, would be that the club are happy to take a boring win and a seven point lead at the top of the Premier League over last New Year’s Day travesty, when United lost to the shockingly bad bottom-of -the-league Blackburn Rovers and began their inexorable slide toward second place.
Nevertheless, before Robin van Persie fired home his exquisite curving clincher in the 90th minute after coming on as a late substitute, United had looked more and more nervous and under seige as the referee’s watch ticked down. With Wayne Rooney injured, the Gaffer still chose to rest Van Persie, and let Danny Welbeck play up front with a returning Shinji Kagawa riding his shoulder. The passive/aggressive Welbeck was brilliant at moments, stultifyingly inept in others. More often than not, unable to hold the ball while venturing into his predictable spin moves at the very edge of the box., Welbeck is enigmatic at best. What Ferguson wil choose to do with him next season is anybody’s guess.
United were lucky to get away with a penalty box scare only two minutes in as the referee Jon Cross gifted an aggressive Chris Smalling the benefit of the doubt after he gave the Baggies’ striker Shane Long a hard shove. Four minutes later, Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young traded a clever one-two of remarkable foot speed before Young’s speculative low cross was deflected past his own goalie Ben Foster by Gareth McAuley to make it 1-0.
Kagawa was excellent in his first game back from injury, coming close to setting up a second for Young 30 minutes in as his gorgeous chip found Valencia on the right flank. Valencia’s cross then found Young, who had a pile driver fantastically saved by Ben Foster at full stretch. Foster, who always performs like an obsessed demon against his old club, nearly botched it just before the half time whistle, however, allowing a marauding Welbeck room enough to charge down a clearance from a poor back pass by Gareth McAuley, freezing up as the loose ball couldn’t be controlled by Welbeck and rolled to safety rather than into the empty net. Over the rest of the half, David De Gea did nothing but yawn. Albion were only up for one good run from Peter Odemwingie which fizzled out of its own volition, and a dreadful pair of dud free kicks from the disappointing Chrissy Brunt which caused United little hassle.
What Sir Alex Ferguson said to his team at the break must remain a mystery, but it was surely the anti-hair dryer. Content to play pitty-pat with the ball during repeated periods of bland football and wasted possession, United spent much time passing the ball backwards as if it were a rugby league match with neither Cleverley nor his partner Michael Carrick making much of an impression at all. Perhaps the Gaffer wanted Jonny Evans to get a maximum number of touches to boost his confidence; nevertheless, a number of these weak touches came close to being pounced upon, especially once the clever James Morrison came on as a sub.
At any rate, the Baggies’ confidence grew slowly as Chris Brunt had a long shot saved, then a more familiar rocket blast blocked by Patrice Evra. Meanwhile, United couldn’t score. Young, Welbeck and Kagawa all missed sitters so that, .65 minutes in, the frustration got to Ferguson too and he took off Kagawa for Van Persie. And although Morrison inspired manager Steve Clarke to bring on strikers Fortuné and Lukaku, their joint efforts saw Vidic ratchet up his defensive line, screaming instructions at his teammates like a latter-day Robbo or Keano. And despite giving up a few strategically questionable free kicks, Evans and Evra proved up to the task and the brave warrior’s example offered up by the excellent Vidic and Smalling. who were both splendid throughout
Late in, as West Brom began to tire, United’s counterattacking tendencies became increasingly venomous. Over the last five minutes Robin Van Persie had a shot brilliantly saved by Foster and then, with an optimum piece of splendid trickery, put through a fine pass to Welbeck which the young Manc striker failed to control. Then, right on the cusp of injury time,Van Persie turned magician again, pirouetting to create space for himself after retrieving a blocked shot from substitute Paul Scholes. Seemingly defying physics, RVP kept moving in a deft diagonal line before findng space and firing a left-footed curler from the edge of the area past the flying Foster.
It was a dagger to West Bromwich Albion’s heart and left their blood and guts pulsing out onto the pitch. On such performances championships are won and lost. More of the same, it seems to this author, is infinitely preferable to the cardiac kid capers we’ve all become familiar with this crazy season so far.