Manchester United made it ten games unbeaten in all competitions after a 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Saturday evening.
The Red Devils found themselves in front after just five minutes when an in-form Zlatan Ibrahimovic headed in his eighth Premier League goal of the season.
Captain Wayne Rooney’s effort that rattled the crossbar was sandwiched in between two fantastic opportunities for Jonas Olsson and top scorer Solomon Rondon, neither of which could convert.
United’s Swedish striker doubled his goal tally for the evening when his deflected shot found the bottom corner of Ben Foster’s net.
United get important first goal
The embryonic stages at a sold-out and rather atmospheric Hawthorns were filled with the confidence the two sides had acquired following sumptuous runs of form. The home side and their opposition were surprisingly separated by just one place in the Premier League table before kick-off - such closeness made Paul Pogba's early challenge on former United midfielder Darren Fletcher rather unsurprising.
United had seen slightly more of the ball in the opening few minutes of proceedings and, with so many of Jose Mourinho’s men in form, the required piece of quality could have come from anywhere. As it happened, the opening goal came via a concise piece of play on the right-hand side.
Antonio Valencia’s high ball behind Allan Nyom gave Jesse Lingard the opportunity to trouble the Cameroon international, which he did throughout the evening. Lingard’s accurate cross found an incoming Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who evaded the attentions of the Baggies’ centre-back pairing to delicately headed the opening goal past Ben Foster – the Swede’s second goal in two games.
The hosts were, however, looking to extend a three-match winning run at home following convincing wins over Burnley, Watford and Swansea respectively. Solomon Rondon’s three headed goals during midweek and West Brom’s superb record from set pieces made it clear where the club’s strength lay – the air. Jonas Olsson was close to becoming the latest beneficiary of a Chris Brunt delivery on his 200th appearance for West Brom but his glancing header went just wide of David de Gea’s far post.
Manchester United continued to dominate in midfield mostly due to the performances of Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba. The latter’s delightful reverse pass to Lingard allowed the winger to play the ball back to countryman Wayne Rooney, whose ferocious strike on the periphery of the penalty area forced Foster to tip the ball onto the bar.
Matt Phillips was the latest to try and instigate the equaliser when he passed Valencia to get his cross away towards Rondon, who perhaps should have got his shot on target. Instead, Tony Pulis’ team found themselves one goal down at the interval.
Zlatan's second seals it
It appeared that Albion’s final home fixture of the year would have to get worse before it could get better when the two teams emerged from the tunnel for the second half. Ibrahimovic got the first touch after the break and arguably got the most important when United’s 35-year-old forward doubled his side’s advantage. An instinctive flick over the defender’s challenge gave Ibrahimovic a route inside the penalty area and the subsequent shot gave United a two-goal lead as the ball deflected off Craig Dawson into the bottom corner.
The match might have opened up even further when a host of attacking substitutions came off the bench. The likes of Marcus Rashford, Hal Robson-Kanu and Leko were all deployed but none could grab a goal to either increase or reduce the deficit – although Rashford did come close on a couple of occasions - there would be no repeat of last year's tremendous victory at the Hawthorns last season.
A deserved and reasonably comfortable win sees Manchester United close the gap on what once seemed like a disappearing top four to just three points. The Reds take on lowly Sunderland next Monday while West Bromwich Albion, who temporarily remain in seventh despite defeat, travel to the Emirates to face Arsenal.