Manchester United saw off a tame West Bromwich Albion side 2-0 to maintain their seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League table.
Gareth McAuley’s poor defensive clearance was diverted past Ben Foster to give the hosts a nine-minute lead, with second-half substitute Robin van Persie then wrapping up in the win at the death.
Danny Welbeck replaced Van Persie in United’s starting line-up, while Shinji Kagawa returned to action for the first time since October after recovering from a knee injury. The recently recalled loanee midfielder George Thorne was handed only his second-ever league start for West Brom in one of seven changes by Steve Clarke.
With United conceding the first goal in 11 of their 19 Premier League games this season, Ferguson would have been relieved to be afforded a helping hand after just nine minutes when McAuley diverted Ashley Young’s drive across goal through the legs of his own goalkeeper to give the league leaders an early lead.
The hosts were dominating proceedings, with the own goal only serving to add further confidence to a slick first-half display.
United might have extended their lead twice before the break – first Foster showed great reactions to tip Young’s fierce drive from 16 yards out onto the crossbar and away.
Then, from the resulting corner, Michael Carrick had a shot punted off the line with the goalkeeper beaten to keep the deficit down to just one goal at the half-time break.
West Brom started the second period with a new-found vigour after a largely anonymous opening 45 minutes, with Chris Brunt combining well with Shane Long and Billy Jones before testing David de Gea from 30 yards within the opening five minutes.
Graham Dorrans then went close, attempting to advantage of panic in the United area following a badly defended free-kick from deep, but Nemanja Vidic threw his body in the way of the ball to divert the danger.
United were getting nervous, and retreating from their
attack-minded first-half display, while the away side were reluctant to push too many men forward, seeking to avoid being caught on the counter-attack.
McAuley nearly made amends for his own goal when he out-jumped Chris Smalling to power a header onto the United crossbar, only for the referee to penalise the 33-year-old for a foul on the defender.
As the game entered the final 10 minutes, substitute Van Persie was denied by Foster, the Dutchman only able to find the goalkeeper’s legs after Patrice Evra played him behind the West Brom defence.
But Van Persie did grab his almost customary goal in the 90th minute, picking up the ball on the edge of the area after a United corner was headed away and curling it with ease past the impressive Forster to seal the win.