United give Ferguson ammunition for title mind games

West Bromwich Albion 0 - Manchester United 3

A slick, effective demolition job executed by Manchester United at The Hawthorns played into Sir Alex Ferguson's hands, providing football's canniest practitioner in psychological warfare with an opportunity to scatter seeds of doubt at the feet of his opponents.

West Bromwich Albion may be bottom of the table, United may have won only three games in a row, but this match, he claimed, had seen his side reach a new level. "We kept possession very well and made it difficult for them to get back," he said. "But don't underestimate our performance. Over the 90 minutes, it was our best of the season."

Really? How convenient. Just when Arsenal and Chelsea might be thinking the race for the title involves only them, along come United, hitting their straps a little earlier than is customary, ready to test whether their rivals, having apparently given them the slip, are tough enough to withstand a comeback. The timing could not be better.

"Catching Chelsea will be a monumental task," Ferguson added. Not impossible, however. "But the confidence is coming back. That's the thing you are always looking for. All we can do is keep winning our games and see where we are on New Year's Day." But can a nine-point deficit after 15 games - the margin by which Chelsea lead United - really be reversed?

Probably not. In the history of the Premiership, no side winning the title has been as far behind after 15 matches as United are this morning. But then again... Take the 1992-93 season, the first of the Premiership, in which United finished champions. After 15 games, Arsenal had 29 points to United's 21. Yet when the season ended, United were 10 points in front, having won their final seven matches. The Gunners, with only one win in their last seven, had tumbled to ninth.

Better still, go back to 1985-86 in the old First Division. Liverpool, ultimately the champions, trailed Manchester United by 10 points after 15 games, were still five adrift on New Year's Day and by 1 March had dropped back even further, in deficit to the new leaders, Everton, by a staggering 11 points. Yet they took the title, winning 11 of their last 12 games.

So there is a precedent. And there are believers, too, apart from Ferguson. Among them Bryan Robson, not unexpectedly, who watched in some awe as his new charges at The Hawthorns were torn apart and then predicted a red charge.

"If they do not get disrupted by injuries or suspensions, United are still in with a great shout," he said. "They are one of the only teams in the country who can put together a run of maybe 14 or 15 wins off the belt. They are capable of doing that so you cannot write them off." Robson, of course, had seen Arsenal only a week earlier, when Albion had done United such a favour by drawing at Highbury.

Once United had raised the tempo on Saturday, however, it was clear that there would be no similar benefits for Arsenal. Paul Scholes, having ended his seven-month goal drought in United's previous domestic game, combined superbly with Ryan Giggs to strike again eight minutes into the second half and by the end had raised his tally for the season to three, in between which Ruud van Nistelrooy netted his 14th goal of the campaign but only his fourth in the Premiership and his first from open play.

The statistics, therefore, also suggest there is more to come. And more ammunition for Ferguson's mind games.

Van Nistelrooy said: "We believe in ourselves, make no mistake about that. We never give up until the end and why should we? Now we are on a good run hopefully we can keep it going and we can only do that by working hard.

"They made it very difficult for us and we didn't create any openings in the first half, but Scholesy finished off the first goal and that changed things."

Albion were not helped by the fact that their Nigeria striker Nwankwo Kanu was ruled out before the game with a groin strain. Cosmin Contras, who also had a groin problem, and Darren Moore, who suffered a twisted knee, were both substituted. Robson expressed particular concern about the health of his talismanic midfielder Moore, who will undergo tests on his knee today.

"It looks like Darren twisted his knee and we are just hoping that it is not too serious," he said. "We were hampered by the injuries which unbalanced us a bit but it was not just that because United are a good team."

Goals: Scholes (53) 0-1; Van Nistelrooy (72) 0-2; Scholes (82) 0-3.

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Hoult; Scimeca, Moore (Gaardsoe, 24), Purse, Clement; Greening, Sakiri (Horsfield, 75), Johnson, Gera; Contra (Robinson, 38), Earnshaw. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Hulse.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Fletcher (Ronaldo, 72), Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy (Smith, 75), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), O'Shea, Fortune.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Man of the match: Scholes.

Attendance: 27,709.

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