United squander lead again as Rooney warms the bench

Manchester United 2 West Bromwich Albion 2
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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson had earlier warned that it would be "only too easy to become a big-time casualty", and how prescient he was. The main victim, we thought, was Wayne Rooney, left on the bench again here, but by the finish it was United's title credentials that had been wounded.

Blowing leads away from home is one thing, or two given that it happened at Fulham and Everton, but when their invincibility at home is challenged so emphatically by a West Bromwich team who ought to have been out of the contest, the problems clearly run deep. This was United's fifth draw of the season, one greeted by boos after the whistle sounded.

Rooney was dropped for the fourth time, the reason a combination of poor form and, surely, the fact he so publicly contradicted his manager in midweek over the state of his fitness. Yet United were cruising after first-half goals by Javier Hernandez and Nani. There were chances for more, with Dimitar Berbatov particularly culpable, but when Ryan Giggs went off after aggravating a hamstringinjury in the 40th minute there was still no call for Rooney. Albion, though, staged a spectacular comeback with two goals in six minutes at the beginning of the second half. By the end the visitors were brimming with energy and purpose and looked the more likely winners, Rooney's belated introduction notwithstanding.

The last time Albion won here, a thrilling 5-3 victory in 1978, their manager was Ron Atkinson and Bryan Robson orchestrated their midfield. Atkinson and Robson later joined United, and while it is unlikely RobertoDi Matteo will find himself in the Old Trafford dugout in the near future,he has already made his mark as a fledgling Premier League manager.

The Italian did not panic after Albion's 6-0 mauling at Stamford Bridge on the opening day and they arrived in Manchester in sixth place, level on points with Tottenham and Arsenal. "The team spirit and personality were evident again today," Di Matteo said. "I want my players to fight. I didn't think we were that bad in the first half and I said if we got one goal we'd be back in it."

Hernandez was gifted an opener within five minutes as Nani's free-kick was fumbled horribly by Scott Carson for the Mexican to prod home. Albion should have equalised after 13 minutes when Chris Brunt somehow steered the ball wide of Edwin van der Sar's post from Fortune's cross.

Berbatov twice shot feebly wide at the other end but then exchanged passes with Nani for the Portuguese to finish smartly with his left foot after 25 minutes.

All over, you thought – and it might have been had Nemanja Vidic not headed against a post just after the restart. Albion did not think that for a moment, though. Instead they came out of the blocks with menace after the interval and were level within six extraordinary minutes. First Brunt whipped in a free-kick from the right of United's area which struck the home wall and deflected in off Patrice Evra as Van der Sar tried desperatelyto claw the ball away.

Nicky Shorey then put in a brilliant block to deny Berbatov and soon Albion were back on the attack. Brunt, who was looking to get on the ball all afternoon, sent in a towering cross from the left which Van der Sar inexplicably spilled, and the Cameroon midfielder Somen Tchoyi was on hand to tap the ball into an empty net.

The cries for Rooney went up but he did not join the fray until 20 minutes from the end, and to little effect. Ferguson, as is his custom, spoke only to the club's in-house TV station. There was no mention of Rooney. He said: "We are losing points and that is frustrating. We were outstanding in the first half and the only criticism is we didn't finish them off." Again.

Bookings: Manchester Utd: Gibson. West Bromwich:Carson, Shorey.

Attendance: 75,272

Referee: Michael Jones

Man of the match: Brunt