The latest emotional week in the life of Manchester United distracted Sir Alex Ferguson to such an extent that he only selected his team to face West Bromwich Albion last night in the hours before kick off. The tumult of George Best's passing, however, did not cause the United manager to lose sight of the importance the Carling Cup has assumed at Old Trafford this season.
This trophy now provides Ferguson with the clearest route to silverware and his starting line-up, senior to Albion in every respect as it transpired, reflected this.
"I really wanted to win this game, that's why I fielded such a strong side," Ferguson said. "It was fitting in a way because we played some really good football. It was a fantastic night and the greatest tribute we could have possibly given to George. It was all organised properly and it made it a very special night."
The official tributes to Best ended at 8.06pm, though 12 minutes into the fourth round tie the number seven shirt with which he is most associated at Old Trafford was returned to centre stage by its current incumbent, Cristiano Ronaldo. United's penetration and purpose will have strengthened their manager's conviction that his team are rediscovering the confidence of early season and in Ronaldo, Park Ji-Sung and the untried yet impressive strike partnership of Louis Saha and Giuseppe Rossi they had the menace to unnerve Bryan Robson's team at will.
Diomansy Kamara fatally left his leg trailing as Ronaldo skipped inside the penalty area to give the referee, Mark Clattenburg, no option but to award the early penalty that the felled Portuguese dispatched beyond Russell Hoult then, five minutes later, another Albion retreat gave Saha the freedom to crown his night's endeavour. The striker, brimming with imagination and threat, exchanged passes with Rossi before marking his first start this season with a drive past Hoult from 18 yards.
"We played some good football but our defending was poor and against a team of United's calibre you cannot afford to give two goals away," said Robson.
There was more resolve from Albion after the interval, rewarded when Nathan Ellington headed in Darren Carter's corner for a consolation, but the contest had effectively ended in the 56th minute when John O'Shea took his Roy Keane role in the centre of United's midfield too literally, playing a neat one-two with Saha and surging into the area to finish off the Frenchman's return in style.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard; Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Richardson; Ronaldo, Fletcher (Jones, 59), O'Shea (Pique, 67), Park (Bardsley, 63); Rossi, Saha. Substitutes not used: Steele (gk), Rooney.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Hoult; Albrechtsen, Moore (Gaardsoe, h-t), Clement, Robinson; Kamara (Earnshaw, 70), Wallwork, Inamoto, Carter; Ellington, Horsfield (Chaplow, 66). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Greening.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne and Wear).Reuse content