To kick-off the new year, Manchester United escaped The Hawthorns with a narrow 2-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion in the Barclays Premier League.
Wayne Rooney scored his first goal from open play since March of last year in the opening moments of the game, but it was cancelled out by a strike of the highest quality from James Morrison.
However, with Albion looking as though they were the team to steal all three points, and probably should have if Peter Odemwingie converted his second-half penalty, but Javier Hernandez headed home the winner 15 minutes from time to keep United at the top of the Premier League table.
As he promised, Sir Alex Ferguson made four changes to his line-up to freshen things up bringing in Tomasz Kuszczak, Gary Neville, Darren Fletcher and Gabriel Obertan for Edwin van der Sar, Rafael, Darron Gibson and Ryan Giggs, respectively.
Unfortunately, Nani has not recovered from his hip injury to take a place in the first XI or on the subs’ bench, which comes as a blow because United did not have his creativity out on the wings, but Obertan should inject some pace in the line-up.
Neville made only his third start of the season, but it was his 400th league appearance, and after watching his performance he might be hard pressed to get another.
Roberto DiMatteo was faced with a series of injuries in his defense, which saw a completely different back-four from the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in October.
Within 20 seconds of the start of the match, James Morrison got in behind Michael Carrick and tested Kuszczak with a tame curling right-footed shot.
Then with just over two minutes off the clock, Evra played a great cross into the West Brom penalty, which Wayne Rooney was able to tuck his header into Scott Carson’s right-hand post.
Five minutes later, Morrison played a nicely driven cross, which caught Gary Neville sleeping, but, thankfully, Jerome Thomas was unable to collect the ball properly and it went out for a goal kick.
A poor back pass from Gabriel Obertan allowed WBA attack United, but two timely blocks by both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, which killed off the very good chance for the home side.
Chris Foy then played a great advantage when Youssuf Mulumbu dragged down Rooney after being dispossessed, but the attack came to nothing as Fletcher’s cross, with Dimitar Berbatov waiting, was high and wide.
From completely nothing, West Bromwich was level.
A long ball forward from Marek Cech was only half-cleared to Morrison, and the Middlesboro player let loose a fantastic strike, which left Kuszczak with absolutely no chance of even getting close to, and ended up in the top corner of the net.
The goal seemed to inspire the Baggies, and they continued having the lion share of the possession, and United looked completely out of sorts.
Fletcher was completely baffled by Neville’s overlapping run, and he was dispossessed by Thomas, and it was fed up to Peter Odemwingie, and made its way back to the Albion winger who fired in a weak shot at the United goalkeeper.
There will be a major talking point after another long searching ball sent in Graham Dorrans, and with him clean through on goal Neville looked to have brought down, but Foy decided on the side of caution and ruled against it, and it would have been a straight sending off for him if he did whistle for the penalty.
However, the ball was not cleared all the way, and Chris Brunt was invited to shoot on his favored left foot, and his curling effort dipped too late to trouble Kuszczak.
United offered very little going forward, but they did have a half a chance to reestablish their lead, but Obertan chose the wrong option, and Rooney was correctly rule offside.
Based on the way that the game was going, it would not be surprising if Sir Alex made at least one, maybe two, changes at half-time to change up the formation to challenge the make-shift West Brom back-four.
United was sixes and sevens at the back, after Albion caught United possession yet again, but Odemwingie’s shot was well off target.
Six minutes from half-time, the change in formation came with Rooney shifting out wide to the left, and Obertan to the right with Fletcher shifting inside to help Anderson and Carrick.
United was again cut open on their right-hand, and they should have been down, but Dorrans could manage only to hit the side netting from a very good area.
A Vidic handball gave West Brom a free-kick in a very good position, but Brunt’s effort struck the wall, but, thankfully, the shot deflected the wrong side of the far post, which was left wide open after Kuszczak played where shot was originally going.
To their relief, the half-time whistle came and it should offer Ferguson, who just turned 69 yesterday, a chance to make some much needed changes to start the second-half if United is to retain their place at the top of the league.
No changes were made by either manager as the match restarted, and United still looked shaky.
More misplaced passing led to the Baggies next chance, and it was a solid left-footed shot from Brunt, but he failed to put it on target.
Some great interchange by Evra and Rooney, saw the latter crossing the ball into the Albion box, but there was no United player attacking the ball and it launched another very direct counterattack for West Brom.
Anderson failed to find Rooney with his through ball, and it allowed WBA to find some space on the right again, but Dorrans’ shot was deflected out for a corner.
The ensuing set-piece was delivered in, and poor marking led to Paul Scharner getting in a header that whistled just wide of the post.
Even though United was not reduced to 10 men, they were playing like they were by being completely harassing the United midfielders.
Finally, Ferguson opted on making two changes bringing off Berbatov and Obertan for Javier Hernandez and Darron Gibson, but they may have been the wrong changes to make.
Before the changes could make an impact, United conceded a penalty.
With Neville nowhere to be seen, Ferdinand was forced to come out and cover, but he clipped Thomas as he went passed him, and it was no brain decision for the referee.
However, from the ensuing spot kick, Odemwingie sent Kuszczak, but he missed the target.
Di Matteo had to make his first change as Steven Reid was forced to come off with an injury and he was replaced by Gianni Zuiverloon.
Rooney had some space to run at the Albion defense, but with no other real options he was forced to take it on his own and he was easily shepherded off the ball and it was collected by Scott Carson.
To make matters worse for Di Matteo, Pablo Ibañez went down with an obvious hamstring strain, and with no defenders left in his squad, West Brom had to bring on Somen Tchoyi as his replacement for the last 20 minutes.
After being completely out in left field for much of the game, Fabio was finally brought on for Neville at right-back.
They always say decisions even themselves out, and United should have had a penalty after Fabio’s cross was knocked out for a corner by the arm of Thomas.
With space to run, Carrick was invited to shoot, which Carson did well to palm out for a corner.
United got their noses in front with 15 minutes to go.
Rooney’s well-placed corner found an unmarked header for Chicharito to score his eighth goal of the season.
The non-penalty call inspired Rooney, and he almost had his second goal of the game, but he headed over from the middle of the penalty area – however, the intent was there.
Like they have done all season long, and most recently against Birmingham City, United allowed the home team to boss the possession, and they almost paid for it.
Thomas, like he did to Neville, roasted Fabio and cut inside the box, and with Kuszczak beaten by the placement of the shot, Vidic was there to clear the shot.
Then moments later, Brunt let loose with another stinging left-footed shot from distance, but it was always rising and went out for a corner.
Without any bookings for the first 80 minutes of the match, United was shown to cautions by Foy in a span of two minutes.
Chicharito was shown a yellow card for accidentally using his studs on a loose challenge against a WBA defender, and Fabio was given one for what Foy deemed to be an unfair challenge on Thomas.
The free-kick from the second booking put United under some serious pressure, but Ferdinand did well to head clear Brunt’s dangerous delivery.
Obviously, Albion was not content on losing and Brunt sent more balls into the box, which
However, that same player unfairly stopped Rooney from creating a counterattack, which saw Brunt received a yellow card, but he also forced the United forward off for some treatment.
Instead of finishing the match with 10-men, Rooney admirably came back on to do his part to see that United did not concede an equalizer.
With Rooney clearly struggling, he fed the ball to Hernandez who used his blistering pace to get passed his marker, but some good last-ditch defending saw the ball cleared from the middle of the WBA penalty area.
Mulumbu was brought off with a minute of injury-time to play with big Marc-Antoine Fortune coming on to add some finishing ability to the Albion attack.
Morrison then tried another spectacular effort, but this time his 30-yard shot tailed wide of the post, and that was West Brom’s last chance to get something from this match.
Manchester United will count themselves lucky to have stolen all three points from The Hawthorns, but full credit to West Bromwich Albion for putting in a very good performance.
Nemanja Vidic gets the honors for his goal line clearance, and he did well to weather the storm that was presented to West Brom from the careless midfielders.
T. Kuszczak – 6; G. Neville – 3 (Fabio – 4), R. Ferdinand – 5, N. Vidic – 7, P. Evra – 6; G. Obertan – 5 (D. Gibson – 5), D. Fletcher – 5, Anderson – 5, M. Carrick – 5; W. Rooney – 7, D. Berbatov – 6 (J. Hernandez – 6)
W. Rooney (3′), J. Hernandez (75′)
Shots (On Target): 6 (4)
Fouls Conceded (Suffered): 15 (9)
Bookings: J. Hernandez, Fabio, N. Vidic