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United finish 2012 on a high

United v WBA Dec 2012Manchester United waved goodbye to 2012 in style, with a hard-fought 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion, to finish the calendar year at the top of the Premier League.

It’s safe to assume that 2012, or at least its first five months, will not be fondly remembered by anybody associated with the club for they brought humiliation in the Europa League and, much more importantly as far as United are concerned, a traumatic end to the last Premier League campaign.

Twelve months ago, United ended their year in disappointing fashion with a 3-2 home defeat against Blackburn, while this year they laboured their way to a fourth clean sheet in the league against the surprise package of the first half of the season. Whether the contrast between now and the end of last year is a good omen only time will tell, but probably even Sir Alex Ferguson would have laughed off the idea of entering 2013 with a seven-point gap over City.

Following the pyrotechnic display against Newcastle on Boxing Day, Sir Alex opted to refresh his side with five changes, including Shinji Kagawa, who made his first start since October after returning from a knee injury. Cleverley and Young regained their spots in midfield, with Nemanja Vidic partnering Jonny Evans at the back and Danny Welbeck alone up-front.

With the game nine minutes old, United found their breakthrough as Ashley Young played a clever one-two with Kagawa down the left channel, before squaring the ball back across the box. Having failed to deal with the quick interchange of passes, Albion’s defence was caught on the backfoot and Gareth McAuley could only look on as the ball ricocheted off his shin and into the net.

United, who had chased the game for long spells against Newcastle, were in total control with Kagawa finding space between WBA’s midfielders and defenders, and Cleverley and Carrick orchestrating every move with composure.

The return of the former Dortmund man will surely be a very welcome news for Sir Alex, although the impression is that he still hasn’t figured out Kagawa’s best position yet. The Japanese was effective when operating in behind Welbeck today and, considering Rooney’s forced lay-off, he could be deployed behind Van Persie – the only player in the United starting XI who treats the ball as delicately as he does.

Kagawa v WBA Dec 2012Kagawa was in the thick of the action again when, just over the half hour mark, he released Valencia down the right flank. The Ecuadorian’s cross found Ashley Young in acres of spaces in the box, but the former Villa man saw his effort brilliantly saved by Ben Foster.

For all the criticism he’s been subject to over the last few months, Young put in another diligent performance and looked very much the more in-form of the two wingers, for Antonio Valencia clearly needs a rest.

With West Brom growing in the game after the restart on an increasingly heavier pitch – the game was only given the go ahead 90 minutes before kick-off as doubts persisted over the playability of the surface – Van Persie replaced Kagawa after 65 minutes, as Sir Alex looked to make the game safe.

As Cleverley and Valencia’s presence increasingly faded, so did United’s, whose inability to retain possession was more reminiscent of an underdog fighting for their life away from home, rather than a table-topping side playing on their turf. Albion, without a win at Old Trafford in 34 years, were very much the better side in the second half but failed to create any clear cut chances and could have been punished with less than ten minutes to go when Van Persie forced a smart save by Foster, after a clever ball through by Evra had split the hosts’ defence open.

With eight minutes left, Scholes replaced Cleverley as United looked to maintain possession and take the sting out of West Brom. Foster denied Welbeck with 90 minutes played, the England striker producing a wonderful effort from outside the box, but even the former United keeper couldn’t keep out Van Persie’s wonderful effort on the ensuing corner.

Scholes played the ball wide to Valencia who fed the Dutchman, before Van Persie struck a wonderful curling effort from outside the box that bulged the net and sealed United 2-0 win.

The performance might not have been memorable but,  at the end of the season, ordinary ,professional results such as today’s matter as much as memorable last-minute winners – something United will have learnt last season – and while the Premier League campaign is only one game past its half-way stage, 2013 looks already a lot better than 2012.

Dan (@MUFC_dan87)