Manchester United again slip up against strugglers to fall further back in Premier League title race
A 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion leaves Solskjaer's side trailing Manchester City by seven points having played a game more
This is becoming a habit for Manchester United. Comeback kings conceded first for the eighth time on the road this season and responded to ensure they have still lost none. Their undefeated away run now spans 19 games, the longest in English top-flight history.
But they have a more damaging habit. “That record doesn’t mean anything,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. “We are in desperate need for three points.”
But, for the second time in three weeks, they slipped up against the strugglers. First Sheffield United beat them, now West Bromwich Albion drew with them. The whipping boys may have dealt them a fatal blow. United have lost five points against the bottom two to leave Manchester City now seven clear and with a game in hand.
But even if Jurgen Klopp has conceded the title, Solskjaer won’t. “No one will give it away this early,” he said. “This season is so unpredictable. Of course, we are not going to settle for second.”
But United can rue the excellence of their academy. Sam Johnstone, the goalkeeper who is one of their youth-team products, made an extraordinary injury-time save, flinging himself to his left to tip Harry Maguire’s header on to the post. “A super save,” said Sam Allardyce.
And, over 95 minutes, United did not merit victory against Albion. West Brom had lost their first four home games under Allardyce by an aggregate score of 17-0 but a rabble felt transformed into a team. Organised, purposeful and threatening, Albion finally looked an Allardycian. It may be too late for them but their obduracy cost United.
Each had opportunities, some taken away in unexpected fashion. Before Maguire’s header, United were first given a penalty and then denied one when referee Craig Pawson changed his mind. His initial verdict was that Semi Ajayi dragged Maguire down; upon reviewing it on the pitchside monitor, he decided the contact was not enough to send the United captain to the ground.
“It is a clear foul but I see Harry in an offside position,” Solskjaer said. Thereafter, there was a frantic few seconds when Johnstone denied Mason Greenwood and Darnell Furlong materialised on the line to clear Scott McTominay’s shot.
Yet Albion were also close to an extraordinary win. “The sad thing is for me is Mbaye Diagne could have had a hat-trick,” Allardyce said. Diagne had bundled his way past Maguire, David de Gea parried his shot but it looped up, seemingly for the striker to head into the empty net. But De Gea reacted brilliantly to rise to his feet and push the ball out of his path. “We had the better opportunities to win the match,” added Allardyce.
Diagne was profligate when he ballooned a shot over the bar from Furlong’s cross, but the January arrival indicated he could be the prolific striker Albion required. The top scorer in the Turkish league in 2018-19 provided a focal point, a presence and an endorsement of winter trading.
Allardyce named his four January signings in the starting XI; one struck inside two minutes. Diagne headed in Conor Gallagher’s cross. It was an indictment of Victor Lindelof, who was overpowered, even if Diagne also escaped unpunished for putting a hand on his face.
“It is definitely more of a foul than what Harry did against the Burnley kid,” said Solskjaer, annoyed United had a goal disallowed in similar circumstances recently. “But as an ex-striker I’d say that was a goal.”
He had warned United to expect an aerial attack. They were not equipped to resist one. Robert Snodgrass rose highest at the far post and De Gea tipped his header over.
United mustered precious little in immediate reply until they got a goal out of nothing. There was something entirely predictable about the identity of their scorer, but the manner of the goal was breathtaking. Bruno Fernandes met Luke Shaw’s cross with a volley that he hooked into the top corner. “Great goal,” said Solskjaer, but it was not a great result.
Updated: February 14, 2021 09:02 PM