Manchester United's Louis Van Gaal goes back to drawing board as top four bid takes a hit with West Brom loss
West Brom 1-0 Manchester United
It always appeared to be a tentative revival, but any hopes of such small steps beginning to gather momentum were halted as Manchester United's Champions League ambitions were dealt a heavy blow by the boot of Salomon Rondon and recklessness of Juan Mata at here at The Hawthorns last night.
Having secured four successive victories in all competitions over the past two weeks, Louis van Gaal's players came crashing down to earth with a bump as West Bromwich Albion toasted a home league victory over United for the first time since March 1984.
The win, sealed by Rondon's 66th-minute goal, as good as banishes any faint relegation fears for Albion, while the defeat leaves United trailing fourth-placed Manchester City by three points, having played a game more and with a vastly inferior goal difference. United now face four games in 13 days in three competitions which will shape their season and the future of Van Gaal. Their prospects by 6pm on March 20, when they visit City at the Etihad, will tell us a lot about what their manager's future.
With Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian back to fitness and in the team following injury lay-offs, and Marouane Fellaini declared fit to take a place on the bench, Van Gaal was at least able to field a more experienced team than in recent weeks. But despite the more senior look to his starting XI, the Dutchman could only watch on from the dug-out as the home side dominated the first half.
The 26th-minute dismissal of Mata clearly added to United's problems. The Spaniard was sent off for two yellow cards in the space of two minutes - both wholly avoidable and plainly stupid bookings earned by the former Chelsea midfielder. Having been booked for failing to retreat sufficiently for an Albion free-kick, Mata made a clumsy challenge on Darren Fletcher which left referee Mike Dean with no option but to brandish a second yellow and subsequent red card.
United had already been struggling to control the midfield and were fortunate that Tony Pulis's team lacked the imagination with which to take advantage of their extra man. Albion's best efforts were restricted to high balls to full-back Craig Dawson, whose height repeatedly troubled United in the penalty area, before Saido Berahino scuffed a good effort wide.
United upped their game, sensing that Albion's over-cautious approach could give them an opportunity to snatch an opening goal. Marcus Rashford saw a 51st-minute shot diverted behind for a corner after good tee-up work by Anthony Martial, and Jesse Lingard went close to testing goalkeeper Ben Foster two minutes later with a curling shot from 20 yards.
When Martial raced onto a Marcos Rojo clearance on 58 minutes, the French forward had the beating of Martin Olsson, but the Albion defender halted his run with a foul on the edge of the penalty area, earning a booking and conceding a free-kick in the process. But with Mata now back in his club suit and Memphis Depay on the bench, United lacked a free-kick expert, leaving Herrera to aim his set-piece into the wall.
On 66 minutes, Albion got the winning goal through Rondon after Pocognoli's cross had been allowed to drop to the Venezuelan forward by United's dozing defence. Rondon was simply in the right place at the right time to stroke the loose ball past David de Gea from 10 yards.
Faced with a mountain to climb, United failed even to reach base camp. With a Europa League double-header against Liverpool and an FA Cup quarter-final against West Ham looming before the Premier League clash with City, an even bigger mountain now faces Van Gaal's team if they are to rescue their season.