United back on familiar ground
Everything is comparative at Manchester United. The club's rich history ensures that is the case. Praise can always be qualified with reminders of recent and distant brilliance, criticism may be all the harsher because of the high standards set in the past. And yet while their European misadventures prove that this is not a great United team, their excellence in England offers echoes of great deeds.
With seven wins in eight league games, two of them away in North London, they have managed the sort of sequence of results that previous United sides have strung together at similar stages of the season. Now they lead the Premier League, Manchester City blinking first in the game of brinkmanship at the top and the Swansea striker Luke Moore acquiring a cult following at Old Trafford.
After a six-point swing in the space of eight days, it is United with the advantage, clear at the division's summit after playing the same number of games for the first time since October. "I don't care about being top of the league," said Sir Alex Ferguson with the nonchalance of a serial winner of titles. The March tables are rarely framed at Old Trafford.
In any case, elevation owed much to others. While United disposed of West Brom, Swansea, courtesy of Moore, defeated Manchester City. "A bonus," said Ferguson. "I didn't expect that." More predictable was the identity of his scorer.
The form team in the title race have the form player in the country, with the possible exception of Robin van Persie. Wayne Rooney's second brace in four days took his total to 26 goals for the season. "If he gets to 40, I'll be absolutely delighted because then we'll be in business," said a demanding Ferguson. "He is on a hot streak; he does these things." Indeed, Rooney has often scored in fits and spurts, but his current purple patch is longer than most. It dates back to December, producing 15 goals in 14 games.
Comparisons, again, provide the perspective. Unlike his annus mirabilis in 2009-10, Rooney has not proved as consistent over a whole campaign. Yet this is already the second-most productive season of his career, he has delivered against the elite opposition - 10 of his 20 league goals have come at the expense of Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool - and is producing when it matters most, long the measure of a United player.
On a day of profligacy, he proved prolific. "His first goal was fantastic," said Ferguson. It was a wonderful piece of anticipation, Rooney responding to Javier Hernandez's shot from the right flank and redirecting it past Ben Foster. "It was a great timing of his run and a good finish," said his manager who, like many another, had initially assumed his top scorer was offside when he appeared beyond the Albion defence. As replays showed, he was not.
His second came from the spot, Rooney converting his penalty after Keith Andrews tugged back Ashley Young. The winger's involvement was instructive. He was a constant menace, torturing the unfortunate Gabriel Tamas, a central defender pressed into emergency service as a right-back. United exposed him ruthlessly, feeding Young, who set up a series of chances.
He was on the end of several, too, never quite finding the finishing touch. Nor did Hernandez, who whipped a shot against the post, or Welbeck, who missed an open goal, highlighting the fact that his otherwise accomplished displays do not produce enough goals.
Here, in his defence, he was out of position, a rangy runner aiming infield from a new berth on the right flank. The injured Nani was not missed and, with both the Portuguese and Antonio Valencia expected back imminently, United have greater options on the right flank. Albion have fewer in defence, with Jonas Olsson now serving a suspension. Cautioned for fouls on each of the United strikers, the Swede was sent off. "The real decisive point," said Roy Hodgson.
His side's run of three successive wins came to an end, leaving United knowing that a Black Country double, should they defeat Wolves on Sunday, will put them four points clear. As they overtook City, they reached another landmark, passing 2,000 league points under Ferguson.
Their recent rally puts them on course for 91 this season, a terrific tally that would exceed the achievements of some of their more exalted predecessors. That they are declining in Europe while remaining dominant in England is a reason why comparisons tend to be unfavourable but, once again, United have adopted a familiar position: first.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney - Another terrific display. After breaking the deadlock, Rooney was the energetic, excellent link between midfield and attack, breaking with urgency and supplying others, as well as scoring himself.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: After being outclassed by Athletic Bilbao, normal service was restored. The return of Rio Ferdinand brought about more order at the back with Phil Jones, a little lost in midfield on Thursday, a surging threat to Albion as a marauding right-back. Ferguson now faces a difficult decision: whether to take Ferdinand, with his fragile fitness, to Bilbao. United's defence is altogether different in his absence.
WEST BROM VERDICT: They played with more ambition than many visitors to Old Trafford and Andrews had two chances to open the scoring. With Wigan next, the Albion renaissance could continue and a first top-10 finish in the top flight in three decades is certainly feasible.
STAYING PUT? Paul Pogba, reported to be moving to Juventus, seemed to have come in from the cold when Ferguson brought him on for just his second league game and then praised the Frenchman. "The boy is still trying to make his mind up but he knows where he should be and he has shown the potential he has got," he said. "He is a first-team player, no question about that." There was a temptation to describe it as a changing of the guard when the teenager replaced Paul Scholes, except that the same switch was made in the 37-year-old's testimonial, and now he has returned from retirement. There are rumours, though, that Pogba will sign an extended deal at Old Trafford.