Scholes slips title drive back into gear

West Bromwich Albion 0 Manchester United 3
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The Independent Football

It is usually past Christmas before any Premiership race sees the best of Manchester United but the bold statements emanating from Stamford Bridge have clearly convinced Sir Alex Ferguson that his side's higher gears will need to be engaged earlier this year if the title is not to become a lost cause. The critical phase, he said last night, will be between now and New Year's Day.

It is usually past Christmas before any Premiership race sees the best of Manchester United but the bold statements emanating from Stamford Bridge have clearly convinced Sir Alex Ferguson that his side's higher gears will need to be engaged earlier this year if the title is not to become a lost cause. The critical phase, he said last night, will be between now and New Year's Day.

Chelsea continued to lead at a testing pace yesterday but United delivered their own message, emphatically sweeping aside Bryan Robson's Albion, who had raised their own expectations by gaining a point at Highbury last week but here were dumped unceremoniously to the bottom of the table.

It might be argued that this was a predictable result but there was a ruthlessness about United, whose goals - two from Paul Scholes sandwiching one from Ruud van Nistelrooy - that their rivals would do well to observe with wariness at least. The gap between United and Chelsea remains nine points but Arsenal will go to Liverpool today glancing anxiously over their shoulder.

Afterwards, Ferguson conceded that catching Chelsea was "a monumental task" but clearly will not let anyone think it is beyond his team. "The important thing is that the confidence is coming back and that's something you are always searching for," he said. "All we can do is keep winning our games and see where that has taken us on New Year's Day."

Yesterday, for his 1001st game in charge, Ferguson placed Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Smith on the bench, restoring Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher to the starting 11. Wes Brown came in for Gary Neville, who has flu. Otherwise, the United line-up showed the level of respect one might expect from the United chief for a team managed by the player he probably held in the highest regard of all during his 18 years at Old Trafford.

Robson's task is to lead Albion to safety, succeeding where Gary Megson failed two years ago. In that respect, he too faces a momentous challenge, although, inspired by the history of the Hawthorns, in which he played no small part, he will not lack for energy. Whether he has inherited a team with the potential to survive is another matter.

Yesterday, having lost Kanu to a groin strain, Robson saw his plans upset by first-half injuries to Darren Moore and Cosmin Contra and then watched helplessly as Albion fell apart.

All United's goals came in the second half, although they might have been ahead sooner had Wayne Rooney, set up cleverly by Van Nistelrooy's chipped cross five minutes before the break, not headed high and wide. Then again, Albion had squandered a good opportunity too, Zoltan Gera, the Hungarian striker, easily bypassing Mikael Silvestre after 18 minutes only to shoot too close to Roy Carroll.

But in the second period United were noticeably sharper in all areas and it was merely a matter of time before they found a way to impose themselves. They did, eight minutes after the restart. A moment's brilliance by United combined with a moment's inattentiveness from Albion as Scholes, running on to an intuitive, back-heeled pass from Giggs, found Albion's central defence gaping open. Given time to look up at the edge of the "D", he lashed the ball wide of Hoult's dive, into the bottom corner.

If Albion ever believed they could peg back United as they had Arsenal, which is doubtful, it was effectively out of the question when United scored again, after 72 minutes. This time, the goal was rehearsed, rather than off the cuff. Giggs lifted a diagonal free-kick to Gabriel Heinze, wide on the left, which the Argentinian headed back strongly across goal, to be nodded in at the far post by Van Nistelrooy.

The game already won, United's third - a second for Scholes after some head-tennis in the Albion six-yard box - was just rubbing it in.

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