His left eye almost closed by bruising, accidentally inflicted by a stray elbow, Patrice Evra could have been excused a one-eyed verdict on Manchester United's victory at West Bromwich. Instead, like Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson, he admitted to a below-par collective display and placed his trust in the threadbare adage about winning when not playing well being a trait of champions.
After only their second away win, in which the unbeaten leaders built on referee Chris Foy's failure to award the first-half penalty which would have had the inevitable consequence of Gary Neville's dismissal, Evra claimed United prevailed "because we are a team of warriors". The Frenchman was honest enough, however, to add: "It was not a good performance."
The candour was contagious. Ferdinand conceded that United had been fortunate not only with Neville's escape but with the 63rd-minute spot-kick Peter Odemwingie sent wide. It came when they were struggling to contain an Albion team striving to add to James Morrison's volleyed riposte to Wayne Rooney's header. "Sometimes you need a bit of luck," said United's captain, "and we got some."
Ferguson also "thought it was a penalty" when Neville brought down Graham Dorrans, which could serve as the dictionary definition of stonewall. Now into his 70th year, the United manager is sufficiently long in the tooth to know that when you get out of jail, you accentuate the positives. And their credit column did contain two auspicious entries – Rooney's first league goal from open play since March and Javier Hernandez's burgeoning reputation as a predatory substitute in the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer mould.
If there was a touch of hyperbole in Ferguson's description of Rooney's contribution as "world-class", there were unmistakable signs of the sharpness and commitment missing since last spring. Ferdinand said: "Hopefully, his goal will shut a few people up and he can get on with playing football and scoring goals, which is what he does best. He has been playing well in the past few games. We all knew the goals would come because he's such a good player. Fingers crossed, he can go on a good run now."
Evra, too, talked up Rooney's renaissance. "Wazza has been working hard and showed his character to stay on the pitch [after Chris Brunt's heavy challenge injured his left ankle in the closing minutes]."
Rooney, who should be fit to face Stoke tomorrow, also delivered the corner converted by Hernandez. The Mexican's fifth goal from the bench invited comparisons with a certain Norwegian, who holds United's record, scoring 28 times after coming off the subs' bench. "Players want to start every game," said Evra. "But when 'Chicho' comes on, you know he'll score the first chance he gets."
In a less-than-vintage Premier League season United's spirit and ability to dig out such wins may give them the edge over less resilient rivals. This, though, is not as impressive a side as the title winners of 2009, when Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez were still on board, Neville's decline was not so conspicuous and midfield would never have been outplayed by Albion's.
At The Hawthorns, where Ferguson paid Albion's head coach, Roberto Di Matteo, the compliment of realigning his formation halfway through the contest, United's central unit was as weak as one can remember during his reign. Gabriel Obertan was particularly ineffectual and while United continue to be linked with Ashley Young and Charles N'Zogbia, it cannot not be long before Tom Cleverley's impact during his loan to Wigan earns his recall.
If United are warriors, Albion are becoming worriers, standing three points above the relegation zone despite having won at Arsenal and drawn at Old Trafford during their best half-season in the Premier League. In the engine room, Youssouf Mulumbu and the Scotland duo of Dorrans and James Morrison demonstrated the verve United fans expect of their side. Alas, they may not survive unless Di Matteo can sort out a glass-jaw defence and find a goalscorer.
Odemwingie appeared capable of filling the latter role yet failed miserably when a second Albion goal would have been one in the eye for Ferguson's men. Talking of which, Evra was asked who gave him his shiner. "His name is Nemanja Vidic," came the surprising reply. "He told me after the game: 'Happy New Year. In Serbia when they say that to someone, they give them a big elbow in the eye'. Thanks, Vida."
Scorers: West Bromwich Morrison 14; Man Utd Rooney 3, Hernandez 75.
Subs: West Brom Zuiverloon (Reid, 64), Tchoyi (Ibanez, 71), Fortune (Mulumbu, 90). Unused Myhill (gk), Shorey, Miller, Cox. Man Utd Hernandez (Berbatov, 60), Gibson (Obertan, 60), Fabio (Neville, 71). Unused Amos (gk), Evans, Owen, Bebe.Booked: West Brom Brunt Man Utd Hernandez, Fabio, Vidic.
Man of the match Rooney Match rating 8/10.
Possession West Brom 63% Man Utd 38%.
Shots on target West Brom 7 Man Utd 3.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside). Att 25,499.