United’s lack of aura
Having been drawn against United in the FA Cup earlier this season, Albion entered this fixture knowing they could match Jose Mourinho’s side.
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Chris Hughton would have felt hard done by after both visits to Old Trafford this season, having lost both games without hitting the back of the net.
On both occasions Albion’s well-drilled defensive resilience made it difficult for the Red Devils, and we were unlucky not to take something from both games.
Mourinho’s version of Manchester United are a curious beast. For all the millions of pounds spent, they do not have the aura of previous United sides.
Whereas the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs attack with pace and fluidity, United seem almost ponderous in comparison. They may be almost certain to clinch second spot, but there’s little need to fear this United side.
Albion’s successful season has been built on the foundation of a defence where each player knows the job they need to perform.
Dunk ’n’ Duffy in the heart of our defence have rightly picked up plaudits almost every week as they have repelled some of the league’s most potent threats.
Friday night saw a repeat of that as Albion showed why no side in the lower half of the table has conceded fewer goals. United enjoyed a greater share of possession, but failed to truly trouble Maty Ryan in the Albion goal.
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The return of Knockaert
The step-up in class from the Championship to the Premier League always meant Anthony Knockaert was not going to be as destructive this season as last, but his attacking output has been below the level most Albion fans were hopeful of seeing.
That all changed on Friday night as Knockaert brought his A game, and then some, to the big occasion.
The little Frenchman tormented United down their left side both with the ball at his feet, where he repeatedly went round United players as if they weren’t even there, and also in partnership with skipper Bruno.
Albion’s bearded maestro has returned to the side in imperious form, and would have been Man of the Match had it not been for the performance of Knockaert in front of him.
If Knockaert can take this form into next season, Albion will be optimistic of both creating and scoring more than this term.
The only goal of the game came from another fluid Albion attack featuring speed-merchant Jose Izquierdo. After David De Gea had palmed away Izquiredo’s attempted cross, Pascal Gross responded quickest and headed towards goal.
The ball was cleared with Albion’s players appealing for the goal. Play proceeded for a few seconds before referee Craig Pawson received the notification that told him the ball had crossed the line.
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28.3mm may not seem like much, but it was enough to put Albion into the lead. United upped the tempo but Albion’s rearguard stood firm and, in truth, never really looked like conceding.
When the final whistle went, Albion players and fans celebrated the double whammy of having beaten Manchester United and securing Premier League survival with two games to spare.
What a team! What a season!