West Brom-Manchester United Preview
LONDON (SE) - In a span of minutes, Manchester United's margin atop the Premier League went from tenuous to tantalising.
The table leaders now face a resurgent West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday, with the upstart Baggies seeking one of their biggest road victories in club history.
United (15-1-3) hit the halfway pole of the season seven points clear of "noisy neighbours" Manchester City in their bid to reclaim the Premier League title from their archrivals. For a while on Boxing Day, it appeared Sir Alex Ferguson's side would see its lead reduced to as little as one point, but the combination of a late goal by Chicharito Hernandez in United's 4-3 win over Newcastle plus a surprising 1-0 loss by City at Sunderland opened up some breathing room.
"It tells you about the courage of our team ... we had a lot of bad decisions against us in the first half,'' Ferguson said after his team overcame three one-goal deficits. ``That could have demoralized the team, but they didn't give in. That is the great quality they have.
``We were down three times and came back three times, then we scored the winner. It is a really significant result for us. It puts us in a good position.''
United played without Wayne Rooney, who will be sidelined at least two weeks with a knee injury. Fortunately for Ferguson, Robin van Persie continued his stellar form and is tied with Swansea's Michu for joint-lead honours with 13 goals, and Hernandez's match-winner was his sixth in league play.
United are unbeaten in seven matches, going 6-1-0 while scoring 19 goals in that spell. However they've also conceded 11 goals during that run, and the 28 United have yielded are the most of any team in the top half of the table.
``We are concerned,'' veteran defender Rio Ferdinand said. ``This season we have let in far too many goals and we need to change that.
``We are in a good position but if we are to maintain where we are, we need to sort ourselves out.''
West Brom (10-3-6) apparently have done just that with seven points from their last three matches after dropping three on the trot. The Baggies picked up three vital away points on Boxing Day with a 2-1 triumph at Queens Park Rangers and climbed to sixth in the table, level with Tottenham Hotspur and Everton on 33 points but trailing both in goal differential.
Chris Brunt scored his first goal of the season, and West Brom were also the beneficiary of an own goal before holding out the final 22 minutes to secure the victory and strengthen their chances of playing in Europe next season.
"We went off track a little bit with three successive defeats but now we're unbeaten in three and we've won our last two," Brunt told the team's official website. "It's very important in this league to pick up back-to-back victories."
A win against United, let alone consecutive ones, have been near-impossible to claim for the Baggies. In league play, United have taken points from all 12 matches between the teams - posting 10 victories and two draws. West Brom will be relieved to avoid facing Rooney, who tormented them with three combined goals in both matches last season and bagged a brace in a 2-0 win in the corresponding fixture.
He also had a goal in United's 2-1 win at The Hawthorns, where Steven Reid's own goal in the 81st minute proved decisive.
The Baggies, who have not won at Old Trafford since a 5-3 triumph in 1978 that many consider their finest win in club annals, posted both of their top-flight draws at Manchester United in 2005 and 2010.