Nemanja Vidic, Man U keep clean sheet
Robin van Persie's 17th goal of the season ensured Manchester United won 2-0 against West Brom on Saturday to claim yet another scalp on its march toward what it hopes will be a 20th league title at Old Trafford.
The performance of skipper Nemanja Vidic was equally notable as he guided United to only its fourth Premier League clean sheet of the season after Gareth McAuley's early own goal had put the hosts in front against West Brom.
Plagued by injury for the past 16 months, and restored to the United lineup for the only the second time since his most recent knee operation, Vidic used all of his experience to ensure United was not made to pay for a lackluster second-half display.
And when van Persie curled home a brilliant effort in the final minute, the Red Devils' handsome seven-point lead at the top of the table was preserved.
After Sir Alex Ferguson's confrontation with Mike Dean on Boxing Day, referee Jon Moss did little to vex the United manager Saturday, beyond an inexplicable free kick against Tom Cleverley when the midfielder had been looking at a dropping ball on the edge of his own box when Billy Jones crashed into him.
By that point, United had got its nose in front courtesy of McAuley, who could only divert a bullet cross from Ashley Young into his own net.
It should have been more.
The nearest United went to doubling its lead was when Young strode onto a deflected Antonio Valencia cross.
He hit it sweetly on the half volley, only for former Red Devils keeper Ben Foster to respond with a brilliant save, which earned his slice of good fortune when he shoved the ball onto the crossbar and over.
"Ben Foster made some good saves," said West Brom boss Steve Clarke. "That's why we spent our whole transfer budget on Ben in the summer."
With a defense that has leaked so many goals this season, Ferguson would not have felt safe. Yet the presence of Vidic offered some degree of comfort.
The Serbian has been absent so often over the past 15 months it has almost been forgotten what a calming influence he is.
His bravery is unquestioned too. And when Chris Brunt drilled a free kick goalward in the final throes of the opening period, it was no surprise Vidic was the one to emerge from a crowd of bodies to head it away.
However, with the clock ticking by and heavy rain continuing to pour down on a sodden surface that required a precautionary inspection a couple of hours before kick off, United started to get stuck.
Young completely miskicked when Valencia's cross presented a golden opportunity on the hour, which offered a Baggies outfit already growing in self-belief more reason for optimism.
Had Brunt's piledriver been either side of David de Gea it surely would have brought the visitors level.
As it was, the shot went straight to the Spain keeper.
"They were a very resilient, stubborn team," Ferguson said about West Brom. "They worked really hard on their defending and closed all their ranks. You have to deal with that but the slowness of the pitch killed our speed a bit."
Little wonder van Persie's arrival midway through the second period was greeted with such enthusiasm, underlining the Dutchman's influence since his summer move from Arsenal.
But with United's passing becoming increasingly sloppy, West Brom continued to push on with force.
Vidic needed to be in the right place to clear a Romelu Lukaku cross that caused panic inside the United six-yard box and the sight of his fellow defenders throwing themselves at anything that moved, it had turned into an unedifying backs-to-the-wall effort so unlike the thrill-a-minute action this stadium has become used to.
Van Persie was denied by Foster with nine minutes remaining but the former England keeper could do nothing about the Dutchman's late shot, which curled expertly into the top corner from Paul Scholes' pass.
"He is a fantastic player," Ferguson said of van Persie. "He came on and changed the game for us. Every time the ball came up to him he got hold of it and turned on them. They were having to go back to their box all the time and he has done well."
United now moves on to a trip to Wigan on Tuesday, with Ferguson hopeful of reinforcing his squad with a few fresh faces.
"It will be a hard game," said Ferguson. "But hopefully we can freshen up again. Possibly Phil Jones will be ready and Rafael will be ready. We rested Javier Hernandez today, and also Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, so we have enough freshness to bring in."
Information from Press Association was used in this report.