A fixture notable for high scoring - invariably in Manchester United's favour - ought to have followed tradition in every detail yesterday.
Having put six goals past West Bromwich in the previous two meetings, Sir Alex Ferguson's team should have maintained that average at the very least. Instead, to Ferguson's frustration ,they eased into a winning position with two goals by Louis Saha, who continues to keep Ruud van Nistelrooy out, then allowed an outplayed Albion back into the game.
Nathan Ellington's header offered unlikely hope, but the revival petered out and news of Portsmouth's romp at West Ham brought groans to The Hawthorns as their plight at the bottom worsened. Only Birmingham's defeat by Tottenham later, improved the mood.
Emerging as moral victors from last week's derby at St Andrew's was still only worth one point, when three were there for the taking. Had Albion accepted just one more of the numerous chances created there, they would have entered yesterday's game in even better heart, but there was no real carry-over.
Many home supporters were critical of Bryan Robson's decision to stick to the same starting XI as last Saturday, with Kevin Campbell again left isolated in attack as the five-man midfield failed to offer sufficient support. Once again the plan unravelled when the opposition scored first and it took the emergence of Ellington and Kanu from the bench to offer a threat.
"Once United get in front, they'll make it difficult," Robson said of his old club. "They're at their best playing counter- attacking football." He declined, however, to blame West Ham for fielding a weakened side against Portsmouth, admitting he would have done the same in a similar situation.
Ferguson's fury would have been something to behold if Albion had managed to deny his team a fifth successive League win. "From a position of real authority, missing chance after chance, you start to fret a bit," he admitted. "The team is playing very well but it could have turned out a real disaster." On the subject of Saha, who now has five goals in eight games, and Van Nistelrooy, he said: "It's one of those difficult situations. But Ruud's a fantastic player and he'll get his opportunities."
Robson was right to be annoyed at the manner of the first goal, assuming that a certain amount of time on the training ground had been spent working on defending set-pieces. Only 16 minutes had elapsed when a corner was won by Kieran Richardson. Brought back into the United team because Park Ji-Sung had gone to a family funeral in Korea, he forced Steve Watson to deflect his cross behind. From Ryan Giggs' corner-kick, Saha simply peeled a yard off his marker and headed in.
Set-pieces were Albion's best hope of revival. In the 35th minute, Diomansy Kamara hit a free-kick from a central position 25 yards out that Edwin van der Sar did well to get down to and from the resulting corner, taken by Greening and met by Curtis Davies's head, the Dutchman made another fine save.
Home supporters hoping to see Kanu and Ellington coming on had their wish granted before the hour, but the pattern continued, with United if anything having more of the play than before. Cristiano Ronaldo, increasingly influential, cut in from the right to shoot straight at the goalkeeper, then sent Wayne Rooney through to be thwarted by Paul Robinson's tackle. Finally, and decisively, the unpredictable Portuguese took Giggs' pass and fed Saha for a deft first touch and volleyed finish.
Against all expectation, Albion's diminishing hopes were translated into something more concrete 12 minutes from time, Ellington earning and then heading in a corner from an identical spot to Saha in the first half, equally unmarked. Saha was then denied his hat-trick by Davies's block after Albion had been cut apart from one end of the pitch to the other.
With Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Arsenal coming up next - three of those away from home - any escape will have to be a great one again.
MAN OF THE MATCH
The Portugese winger turned on all the tricks but in a disciplined manner and was at times unplayable.Reuse content