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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Sunderland no match for slick Baggies

As West Brom looked to solidify their place in the top four, they proved just why they are currently in the upper echelons of the Premier League table with a confident win against Sunderland.

Missing Youssouf Mulumbu, much of the pre-match conjecture had focused on how they would cope without a player who has become an intrinsic component of their midfield. The answer was well, as a pairing of Claudio Yacob and James Morrison dealt impressively with a static Sunderland midfield.

Yacob, an equally thrifty acquisition, proved calm and assured throughout the afternoon as he looked to play the pitch horizontally rather than vertically; an early 50-50 ball against Lee Cattermole proved the more physical element of the game does not frighten him, and his manager lauded his performance after the game.

For Sunderland, their captain's industrious style was encouraged at every opportunity. Cattermole may be a polarising character, but he is one who has rarely shirked responsibility on the pitch and his steel was sorely missed in midfield when he was withdrawn through injury. It is a void Martin O'Neill confirmed he will attempt to fill in the January transfer window.

The deadlock was broken in an even first half when Zoltan Gera, the man Steve Clarke deemed his man of the match, gave West Brom the lead on what was the first occasion the Baggies had looked to truly exert themselves in an attacking sense. A fracas behind the goal between stewards and home fans wishing to stand made for an ugly situation all round from a Sunderland perspective.

Shane Long, at the top of West Brom's attack, found himself receiving little sympathy from referee Mike Dean in the first half, with the official giving several fouls against the diminutive forward, including a harsh booking for simulation - a decision he will perhaps regret upon review.

If Long had been unlucky in acquiring his booking, the balance was more than restored when he pounced on what seemed a routine collection for Simon Mignolet to score an unlikely goal - Long's subdued celebration suggesting he was aware of how fortuitous the strike was. After the game, O'Neill preferred to focus on his goalkeeper's impressive form this season rather than his momentary, costly lapse.

In the second half, Long was withdrawn and his replacement Romelu Lukaku was able to add his name to the scoresheet via the penalty spot after demanding to take the kick with all the youthful exuberance of an eager schoolchild at break time. The Belgian has previously been keen to distance himself from comparisons to Didier Drogba of late, but as a former student of public relations, Lukaku will surely recognise the benefit of association by goals.

Stephan Sessegnon's 87th-minute goal gave Sunderland hope but as injury-time ran its course, the game quickly became stretched and frenzied, with the continued home support admirable in the face of what was looking likely to be a defeat. The decision to push Carlos Cuellar up for the remaining minutes was a gamble worth taking, but it facilitated a West Brom breakaway and a Marc Antoine Fortune goal that sealed victory for the visitors, deflating the partisan Wearsiders who had stayed in hope.

The final goal also allowed Clarke to indulge himself for the first time during the afternoon as his relaxed, hands in pockets demeanour - which bordered on the nonchalant at times - was replaced with profuse punching of the air, perhaps in relief at the realisation that he would not be suffering a repeat of the last-minute disappointment associated with his last visit to the North East against Newcastle just weeks prior.

Although time remained, the game was over. The home announcer was quick to remind fans that their next attempt to secure just a third league win this season is on Tuesday against Queens Park Rangers, who now represent a much more daunting proposition given that it will be Harry Redknapp's first game in charge of the club.

An obviously disappointed O'Neill attempted to extract the positives post-match - his side had, after all, scored more than once for just the third time this season. Steeped in effort, the question of quality is slowly creeping into the Stadium of Light, with such poor movement unlikely to garner end product for a team with such limited pace in attack.

Meanwhile Steve Clarke was decidedly more happy. When asked how it felt to leapfrog former club Chelsea, he approached his answer with the same sense of calm he displays when pacing the touchline. "It's early in the season, we're pleased with our points total in the Premier League. We stay focused, we stay grounded," he said. Clarke later chose to joke that a fourth-place finish may see more money afforded to him in the summer.

Having worked at Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle, Clarke recently stated in an interview that he understands why he is often forced to field questions about his former bosses and their impact on him. The Scot also asserted that his ultimate goal, like so many assistants that step into the breach of management, is to forge his own identity and his own career. It certainly appears an achievable aim if his stock continues to rise as swiftly as his West Brom side have.

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