Date: 12th March 2012 at 12:43am
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Top of the league

With the overwhelming disappointment of Thursday night’s defeat at home to Athletic Bilbao now behind them, it was time to return to domestic matters as Manchester hosted West Brom on Sunday afternoon. With title rivals Manchester City playing Swansea at the Liberty Stadium at the same time, fans of either side would no doubt have an ear on the rivals’ game to see what changes, if any, might occur at the top of the table.

Changes were wrung for the game at Old Trafford as David De Gea continued in goal, with a back four consisting of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand and finally, Patrice Evra out on the left. Sir Alex Ferguson set up his side a little differently, with a midfield that included Paul Scholes and Michael Partnered centrally, Ashley Young out on the left, the only true winger in the side, with Wayne Rooney, Javier and Danny Welbeck making up the rest of the attack, with Hernandez often involved out on the right.

With a slightly different set up, it was likely that there would be some time needed to adjust and settle into the game, as the visitors started brightly and had the early opportunities. However, did not take long to find their feet and gradually began to settle into creating chances and looking for ways to get forward. As the home side began to assert themselves, with the majority of possession in their favour, so the forwards also looked more threatening, with Welbeck, Rooney and Young linking up well, Young in particular looking dangerous on the left side, charging down West Brom’s right times, causing their defence plenty of problems. West Brom also had their chances, notably testing De Gea with a  long range free kick that was well parried as it took a deflection on it’s way towards goal.

35 minutes in and the threats paid off, as collected and controlled a superb pass from Scholes out on the right, working his way into the box and finally firing towards goal with Rooney timing his run perfectly to meet it hit past Foster, giving a justified 1-0 lead. As they half played out, United maintained their dominance on the game, refusing to let up and looking to create more, with the four attackers looking to find ways through on goal with effective passing and utilisation of pace. However, the half was seen out with the one goal advantage. Would United maintain the level of performance and take the 3 points?

The second half began much as the first ended, with coming extremely close to doubling the lead, firing a sweet shot just outside the area, only to rattle the post. Soon after, the Baggies shout for a penalty, as Evra appeared to make contact with Odemwingie. Although appearing soft, one cannot deny the contact made and thereby making their protestations somewhat justified. A crucial moment perhaps.

65 minutes in and West Brom find themselves a man down as Olsson received a second yellow card for his tackle on Hernandez, leaving his side with an uphill struggle to bring themselves on level terms. continued to press as Evra also began to progress from his defensive role, showing threat down the left. With just under 20 minutes left, and a chance to put the game beyond doubt as the lively Young was brought down in the area. Rooney stepped up for the resulting spot kick and coolly placed the ball into the bottom left corner, sending Ben Foster the wrong way. As the game became comfortable United made changes, notably bringing Pogba on for Scholes, after transfer speculation in recent weeks suggesting he was headed for the exit at Old Trafford.

As the game drew to a close, news filtered through that Manchester City had gone behind to Swansea, prompting large cheers from the home crowd in celebration as the realisation that their side could be going top of the Premier League. And so it remained, with seeing the game out 2-0 and going a solitary point clear at the top of the pile. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.

1) A far more commanding performance…

After being thoroughly outplayed against Bilbao midweek, and a game the weekend before in which it was widely accepted that United were second best at White Hart Lane, fans will have taken some encouragement from the nature of the performance on Sunday afternoon. Although the true test of any performance is it’s maintenance and the establishment of consistency, one would certainly take reassurance in seeing a commanding performance where possession was well controlled and creativity shone through. The set up involved a 5 man midfield, with 3 strikers and only the one winger in Ashley Young on the left, and the change appeared to pay off, with Young, Hernandez, Welbeck and Rooney all enjoying lively spells in the game with Young and Rooney perhaps the most influential of them all. It was also encouraging to see the level of performance maintained after scoring as opposed to stepping off which has been seen on occasion in recent weeks.That is not to say Hodgson’s men did not have their chances, testing De Gea on a few occasions and could well have had a penalty on another day, but for United it was a far more controlled affair than in recent games.

2) Greater defensive stability

It could be said that on Thursday night, United missed the experience of Rio Ferdinand in the centre of defence as he was rested. However, given the nature of Bilbao’s performance that evening and how easily they got forward, one wonders whether that really would have changed the outcome. However, it ought to be pointed out that there seemed a greater sense of stability about the back four on Sunday, with Jonny Evans and Ferdinand appearing to make a solid partnership. It would appear that Evans is beginning to see more of the credit that he deserves for his recent performances, looking far more up to task and generally having a greater influence in the back four than before. Against the Baggies he put in another assured performance and earning yet more plaudits in a welcome clean sheet.

3) Ashley Young finding form with each game

As mentioned already, it could be argued that one of the more influential players on the pitch on this occasion was Ashley Young. Since returning from injury, the England winger has had a role to play in certain matches of late, without necessarily putting in a strong performance overall. A case in point would be last week against Tottenham, a match in which despite having quiet spells in a fairly mediocre performance for the whole side, he essentially won the game, providing an assist and two brilliant goals. This weekend though, was the first time that his influence and effectiveness was felt all game, proving lively throughout on the left side, looking to shoot and providing excellent delivery into the box often, using his pace effectively and able to work his way past the defenders regularly. One might argue that he is progressively showing signs of the form we witnessed early in the season.

4) Are United guilty of wasting chances?

Although producing a dominant performance that resulted in a comfortable 2-0 victory, one cannot help but wonder if, for all the threat and creativity, United could have won by more. Certainly, there were certain chances that one could not class as wasteful, with hitting the post and Young forcing a good save from Foster as examples in a performance that saw many opportunities come by on a productive day for the United attack. However, there were also chances that one would argue were squandered. Hernandez could have had a couple by all accounts. The Mexican, it should be noted, was much improved from Thursday, seemingly finding his first touch again and seemed involved on plenty of occasions, including setting up the opener. Welbeck also should have had at least one from the day, coming agonisingly close as he was through on goal dragging the ball past Foster and appearing left with an open goal, unable to steer the ball home at the acute angle. That said, despite certain strong chances, the strong threat posed by the attack is noteworthy and deserves more credit than criticism this time.

5) Paul Pogba returns – the meaning?

Prior to kick off, news filtered through that Paul Pogba was to be included in the squad and would be seen on the bench for the game. The young midfielder has been the subject of much speculation recently, with some going so far as reporting that a contract had been agreed with Juventus and a hefty agent’s fee agreed. On questioning during the week, Ferguson simply stated he did not know the situation, and with many fans agreeing that his absence in recent weeks as well as this new speculation, that it would be the last that we would see of the talented youngster in the United side until his protracted move this summer. As the week drew to a close, new rumours suggested that what was reported was not all that it seems and upon seeing Pogba’s name on the squad list, people gathered new hope about the promising star possibly staying at the club.

With United leading 2-0, the time came to reintroduce him to playing time on the pitch, as he replaced Paul Scholes, greeted on the whole to cheers by the United faithful with some groans of discontent also heard. Although it is clear that nothing is certain regarding his future, it is clear that despite the definitive terms upon which the media reported his contract offer this week may not be all that it seems, and his inclusion within the side this weekend may be an indication that he may yet be convinced to stay at the club with an increasing sense of worth as a first team player in the side. Time will tell whether this is the case.

This weekend saw Manchester United return to the top of the league for the first time since October. With 10 games remaining, some have pointed out the supposedly favourable fixture list as the season reaches it’s conclusion, with United not meeting a supposed “top side” until they meet City in April. However, it should be argued that as the season comes to a close, there are not necessarily any easy games, with the potential for points dropped with each game as teams become desperate for points whether it be for avoiding relegation or to gain certain places in the league. Regardless of the upcoming games of other sides, Sir Alex Ferguson will no doubt instil a sense of focus within his side to concentrate on their own remaining games and ensure that the maximum number of points are gained as the title run in reaches a climax.

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