While Manchester United stuttered, Paul Pogba did not. The Frenchman has abandoned his controversial, stop-start penalty-taking technique. He ran up fast and true, drilled in two spot kicks and preserved United’s hopes that Tuesday’s trip to Barcelona will not be their last Champions League game for 17 months.
They beat West Ham United and leapfrogged Arsenal to go fifth. If they remain the outsiders to take one of the final two positions in the top four, a setback here could have been a fatal blow. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had estimated they needed 15 points from the final 18 available. They were on course to drop two, and could have mislaid all three.
In the minutes before Pogba scored his second, West Ham’s elusive, electric substitute Michail Antonio had rattled the bar from long range and drawn a fine save from David de Gea with an unmarked header. Then Ryan Fredericks, newly and perhaps needlessly introduced by Manuel Pellegrini, brought down Anthony Martial, Pogba scored his 16th goal of his most productive season and United had just a second win in six games.
They scarcely deserved it. West Ham were the more assured in possession and the more threatening for large swathes of the game. Neither fortune nor the officiating favoured them, though at times they did not help themselves.
They displayed an early generosity. Robert Snodgrass scarcely needed to bundle Juan Mata over on the edge of the 18-yard box, but he did. Pogba’s penalty was his first goal for almost two months but, if his performances have tailed off after his spectacular start to life under Solskjaer, he twice held his nerve under increasing pressure. But Mata, perhaps making one of his final appearances at Old Trafford, was cautioned for a lunge at Mark Noble. United are moving in a different direction – younger, faster – and this looked a desperate attempt to be something he was not as United laboured.
And Pogba’s first spot kick was their only shot on target in the first 57 minutes. They had not registered one against Barcelona on Wednesday at all and Solskjaer had to summon the substitute Marcus Rashford to bring some urgency and to work Lukasz Fabianski.
Rashford, Scott McTominay and Victor Lindelof had been rested ahead of the rematch with Barcelona but it was a sign of how ineffectual Romelu Lukaku was that he was replaced by the rookie Mason Greenwood. Rashford improved United, and they needed his speed.
But West Ham, who still have a solitary point on their travels in 2019, threatened a first victory at Old Trafford since 2007. United had gift-wrapped them an equaliser. The stand-in skipper De Gea was the initial culprit with a poor throw out. When Manuel Lanzini curled in a cross, Marcos Rojo was caught ball-watching as Felipe Anderson slid in behind him to score his first league goal of the calendar year. It was vindication for Pellegrini, who had sprung a surprise by fielding the Brazilian on the right, and who saw West Ham’s record buy torment Rojo, an unconvincing deputy for the suspended Luke Shaw.
It was also justice for the Hammers. Anderson had found the net earlier, with a sweetly-struck scissor kick after Javier Hernandez headed the ball into his path, but it was disallowed, even though Diogo Dalot had played him onside. An uncharacteristically annoyed Pellegrini had harangued referee Graham Scott in the tunnel at half time, but his side mustered a more eloquent response.
West Ham had not even scored in their previous three away games, but showed menace. With United looking fallible at set-pieces, Anderson’s glancing header went narrowly wide. It was one of several near-misses for the visitors but United head to Camp Nou with a victory, if not a remotely impressive performance.