Manchester United slumped to a frustrating 1-1 draw against West Bromwich Albion on Sunday afternoon, falling seven points off Manchester City’s Premier League title pace.
City also have a game in hand against Everton in midweek, only adding further assurance that United’s title hopes are hanging by a thread.
United started the game on the wrong foot, Victor Lindelof failing to deal with Mbaye Diagne as the bustling West Brom forward nodded home the opening goal inside two minutes.
Bruno Fernandes scored an exquisite volley shortly before half-time, but United struggled to break down West Brom’s stifling and well-organised defence.
With United’s title chances dwindling, here is how the national media reacted to the 1-1 draw.
A month ago Manchester United went top of the table, since then they have looked anything but possible champions. Two wins in seven games means the gap to Manchester City is seven points – with United having played a game more – but this is about more than just numbers: United simply do not look like a team with the fluency to put together the sort of run that could apply pressure.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær insisted that United have not given up on the title, but he did not sound especially convincing. “No one will give it away this early,” he said. “No one knows this season – it’s so unpredictable, life is unpredictable, anything could happen. We’re not going to settle for second.”
It’s less than a month since Manchester United went to Anfield in a top-of-the-table clash and we were talking about one of the most open Premier League title races for years.
If Liverpool’s defence of their crown has been abject since then, United’s challenge has been little better. Nine points dropped in the last five games has handed the advantage to a resurgent Manchester City, and there are no guarantees anyone will get close to Pep Guardiola’s side again.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wouldn’t join Jurgen Klopp in raising the white flag after this disappointing draw at the Hawthorns on Sunday, but he may have no choice soon.
City are seven points clear with a game in hand now, and United’s current form suggests they are only likely to lose more ground.
United felt they were on the wrong end of a couple of marginal decisions on Sunday, but that’s open to debate. Draws, as Solskjaer acknowledged afterwards, are no use at the moment.
His team simply didn’t create enough to show for their 73 per cent of possession, and they could easily have conceded a hat-trick of goals to Mbaye Diagne after the Senegal striker gave West Bromwich Albion an early lead.
Despite a sluggish first-half performance, United dominated the ball with 71.1 per cent possession and finally made it count just before half-time. It was a sensational finish from Fernandes too as Luke Shaw floated a cross in from the left, with the midfielder firing home a powerful volley to haul the visitors level.
United were much better after half-time, and were awarded a penalty just after the hour mark. Maguire had gone down with Ajayi at his back and Craig Pawson tentatively pointed to the spot. But after a check of the pitchside monitor, the referee withdrew his decision with not enough contact made to give the foul. Maguire also looked to be offside in the build-up, although this did not appear to have been checked.
United could have added another soon after, but were denied on the line. Maguire nodded down Shaw’s corner, finding Mason Greenwood, but his attempt was stopped by Johnstone’s outstretched foot. Scott McTominay then tried to net the rebound but Darnell Furlong cleared off the line.
Diagne had missed two excellent chances to score another late on. After using his physicality to get past Lindelof for the opener, he did the same thing to Maguire at the top of the area, before seeing his effort saved by De Gea. The goalkeeper then clawed away the striker’s attempt to nod home the rebound. Soon after, he blazed the ball wide after a superb cross from Furlong in what would have been a sensational winner.
Maguire almost ensured all three points went back to Manchester, but was thwarted by the fingertips of Johnstone. He nodded a powerful header goalwards, but the West Brom goalkeeper tipped it onto the crossbar.
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Manchester United’s European campaign resumes this week as they travel to Turin to take on Real Sociedad in the first leg of the Europa League last 32.
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It is now just one win in five league matches for United – oddly the 9-0 demolition of Southampton – as they have taken just six points from a possible 15. They are second, ahead of Leicester City on goal difference, but this was the kind of game they have to win if they are to push City. Solskjaer pointed out they play the champions-elect soon but can they really do any damage?
It may be an encounter they are more set-up to cope with – unless City maintain their current form – but United will have to perform far better than this with the tone set from the kick-off with West Brom seizing the initiative scoring after just 83 seconds with a goal that owed everything to Diagne’s determination to reach the ball and Lindelof’s inability to cope.
Conor Gallagher hoisted in a cross, De Gea stepped forward appearing set to collect it but then hesitated, Lindelof was distracted and Diagne was too strong as he headed home from the edge of the six-yard box. There were claims that Lindelof was fouled but he should have attacked the ball as committedly as Diagne did.
Certainly it looked like Allardyce was targeting United with crosses and De Gea did well to tip over another header, from Robert Snodgrass, after Luke Shaw was out-jumped before – on half-time – the equalising goal unexpectedly came. Shaw crossed and Fernandes met it with a wonderful volley, steering the ball high into the net. It was out of keeping with what had gone before it from United. Just where would they be without Fernandes?