Manchester United unable to settle score as West Brom add salt to their wounds
Man United 0-1 West Brom
It was in the 1978-79 season, under the management of Dave Sexton, that Manchester United last lost four league games in a row. Equalling that unwanted piece of club history is what now faces Louis van Gaal's players as they head to Selhurst Park on Saturday evening.
United's four-point lead over Liverpool - effectively five, given goal difference - provides the Old Trafford side with a cushion. But if United lose at Crystal Palace and Liverpool pull off the performance of their campaign at Chelsea next Sunday, assumptions about Champions League football next season would change.
It seems unlikely, but then when Chris Smalling scored United's fourth against Manchester City three weeks ago, no one foresaw it being United's last goal in four hours and 47 minutes. By the end of that game, United were a point off Arsenal in second place. City were four points behind.
Roles have changed since. United have lost to Chelsea, Everton and 1-0 on Saturday to a tight, balanced and determined West Bromwich Albion, who won at Old Trafford for the second consecutive season, via a deflection off Jonas Olsson from a Chris Brunt free-kick.
Robin van Persie - starting his first game since February - missed a penalty 10 minutes after Olsson's goal and then had a sweeter strike saved again by Boaz Myhill.
Asked if Van Persie remained United's penalty taker, Van Gaal replied: "No, he is now at the end of the road."
Did that mean Wayne Rooney would step back in? "Wayne has missed also, so when you miss you are at the bottom again," Van Gaal said. So who will take United's next penalty? Van Gaal did not answer.
When he was pushed on his side's inability to break down a stern West Brom defence, and Rooney's withdrawn positioning, Van Gaal was a little more expansive.
"I miss a striker who scores. If it's Van Persie or (Radamel) Falcao or Wayne Rooney who scores the goal, I'm happy," he said. "Because of the injuries to (Luke) Shaw and (Michael) Carrick I could not play in the way we always play."
To Van Gaal, availability meant Rooney playing behind Van Persie. Rarely can United's talisman have been so quiet. There were some exchanges with Juan Mata, stationed on the right flank, when Rooney looked enlivened, but for periods of a wrestle of a match he went almost unseen.
It was not the best use of Rooney's abilities and Tony Pulis must have been relieved to see where and how Rooney was used.
Pulis took over at The Hawthorns in January. West Brom had 18 points from 20 games; since then they have won 22 from 15.
The Baggies will not be relegated, as feared pre-Pulis, though he did sound a warning about the future and his players' contracts.
"I think there's about eight or nine of them out of contract and we'll be doing nothing with them at the moment," Pulis said. "The fact of the matter is the club is up for sale. I spoke to the chairman and at the moment we are still in a little bit of limbo.
"It's not just the players who don't know what is going to happen here. It's the same with everyone around the club."