Manchester United-West Brom Preview
The only man who refuses to concede to Manchester City has the only team that can catch them.
Still 11 points behind their eternal rivals but defiant as ever, Jose Mourinho leads a Manchester United side lacking conviction at the moment into their Sunday match at The Hawthorns versus West Bromwich Albion.
While the gloomy weather at Old Trafford may have contributed, there was a clear sense of a hangover around Manchester United (12-2-3) as it grounded out a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth on Wednesday.
Forward Romelu Lukaku, whose defensive shortcomings contributed to both of Manchester City's goals off set pieces in Sunday's derby defeat, made some amends with a header in the 25th minute, but his subdued celebration reflected the enormity of the task at hand in overtaking their noisy neighbours.
But for the moment, a win is a win, and United kept pace with City. While Antonio Conte, whose Chelsea side is only three points back of Mourinho and United, has conceded the title race to City and Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger won't even address the 18-point gap his side must overcome, the "Special One" would hear no such talk of the Premier League race being over, telling The Times if that were the case he would go "on holiday to Brazil or Los Angeles."
Mourinho, however, was pleased with the win, more so because left back Luke Shaw turned in a strong effort as he tries to win back into the manager's good graces. The fans also gave their approval when Shaw was substituted out after 83 minutes, another step in the 22-year-old's process to realizing all the potential seen when he came through Southampton's ranks and was in the Premier League as a teen-ager.
"Luke was really good and improving, but then, later in the game, he was feeling cramp and (Bournemouth) felt that and were trying to go through that side," the manager noted. "The reaction of the crowd pleased me too because there is no better thing for a player than that."
Lukaku, though, may be the one in need of better things, and The Hawthorns may be where he can find it.
The Belgium international, who has a team-high 13 goals in all competitions for United, scored 17 in his only season at West Brom while on loan from Chelsea and has four goals and three assists in six lifetime starts versus the Baggies.
He also recorded a hat trick for the Midlands side in a wild 5-5 draw versus United in 2013, giving him a chance to be the first Premier League player to score a hat trick for both sides in a fixture.
At this point, however, West Brom (2-8-7) might be happy with just a goal. The Baggies are just above the drop, ahead of Crystal Palace and West Ham United on goal difference, but have not found the back of the net in 304 minutes dating back to Sam Field's goal in the 56th minute of a 2-2 draw versus Newcastle United.
That barren run pre-dates Alan Pardew's arrival at The Hawthorns following the firing of Tony Pulis, though West Brom did claim a second point in three matches under Pardew after seeing out a scoreless draw at Anfield versus Liverpool on Wednesday night.
"We kept them very quiet and created on transition better moments, in the limited number that we had, than we did at Swansea," Pardew said. "That's an improvement, but still an area to work on. We had some really strong performances - and if you get four or five 'eights' in your team that normally constitutes points."
The Baggies, though, are enduring a club-record 15-match winless streak (0-8-7) since starting the season with the maximum six points. They have drawn five of their last seven matches at The Hawthorns with just eight goals scored in as many contests there.
"If you want to have a good result against such difficult opponents you have to run and fight and work for 90 minutes," midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak said. "Now we have another big game against Manchester. Now we have to start scoring again. It's a big game but we are capable of a win."
United took four points in last season's fixtures, including a 2-0 victory exactly one year to the date of this match at The Hawthorns on a brace by Zlatan Ibrahimovic on either side of halftime. West Brom, though, have held their own of late against United, with each team claiming three wins and two draws in the last eight.
Updated December 14, 2017