Manchester United needed a little bit of good fortune to see them through as they edged to a 1-0 away win against Norwich City on Saturday, extending their recent improved run in the Premier League.
Without Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney due to injury, it fell to Danny Welbeck—a half-time substitute—to continue his recent goalscoring run to narrowly seal the points, rounding John Ruddy shortly before the hour mark to grab the game’s only goal.
The finish was undoubtedly clinical, but the build-up was somewhat fortuitous: Welbeck saw his attempted pass ricochet off the unfortunate Ryan Bennett to put Javier Hernandez clean through and the Mexican’s heavy touch then ran back into his strike partner’s path as the England man coolly slotted home.
The manner of the goal, or at least its build-up, will only add to the frustration of Norwich boss Chris Hughton, who saw his side control much of the first half but fail to take advantage of any of their opportunities, with Russell Martin, Gary Hooper and Wes Hoolahan all guilty of spurning good openings.
"On the balance of play, defeat is a tough one to take," Hughton told the BBC afterwards. "So many aspects of our game today were very good. But goals win games—and their goal was fortunate."
David Moyes, however, will be pleased at the manner United eked out this result—especially after he was robbed of the services of Rooney, who did not travel to Carrow Road after complaining of a slight niggle in his groin.
In his place, Welbeck stepped up. As Moyes told the BBC:
Norwich put on a great show today, but we did as well. We kept it quite tight at the back.
To get two away victories in three days in the Premier League is a good return for us.
Danny Welbeck couldn't score very often last season, but he looks like he will do it every time now. He changed the game today when he came on.
Rooney is expected to return for the New Year’s Day meeting with Tottenham, however, as United will look to get their fifth successive league win since those back-to-back home defeats to Everton and Newcastle United.
Without Rooney and longer-term absentee van Persie for Saturday's match, Moyes opted to play Hernandez alone in attack with Shinji Kagawa and Ryan Giggs supporting him. It was Norwich, however, who did most of the running in the opening 45 minutes.
With Leroy Fer, Bradley Johnson and Robert Snodgrass covering ground in midfield, the home side created a number of chances, with Martin forcing David de Gea into a smart save after 15 minutes as he burst into the box. De Gea could only parry the shot into the path of Hoolahan, but the ball seemed to get stuck under the Ireland international’s feet as it eventually went harmlessly out for a goal kick.
Norwich continued to press, with United often forced into some dogged defensive stands. Jonny Evans made one particularly fine block to deny Nathan Redmond after the lively winger had cut inside from the left, while De Gea again had to be alert to palm away Hooper’s first-time effort, although the striker may feel he could have directed his effort further away from the goalkeeper.
With Moyes seeing his side create few openings of their own—Hernandez’s repeated offsides being an element of that—he decided to make a change at half-time, Giggs (who had also been booked in an ineffective display) being withdrawn for Welbeck. It was a decision that would soon pay dividends.
The second half started with Redmond missing the target with a long-range attempt, but from then on, United looked more organised defensively as they began to press further up the field. Ashley Young missed the target with his own try from distance before Welbeck finally made the game’s crucial intervention.
Picking up the ball near the halfway line, the striker was undoubtedly fortunate as his attempted through ball made its way back to him, clean through on goal, via deflections off Bennett and Hernandez. But from that point onwards his decision-making was impressive, coolly taking the ball to Ruddy’s left and sliding home into the open net.
Suddenly needing a goal to get anything from the game, Hughton brought on Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Josh Murphy and Johan Elmander over the final 30 minutes, but despite those changes, Norwich failed to create any clear-cut openings as United soaked up the pressure with relative ease.
Still, the visitors nevertheless failed to create any further chances of their own—ultimately holding on for a win that was scarcely deserved but gratefully received.
With Rooney expected to return on New Year’s Day and van Persie not long after that, Moyes will simply be happy with a result that keeps his side moving in the right direction.
Norwich, meanwhile, remain three points above the relegation zone at the halfway stage of the season.
|Norwich City Player Ratings|
|Ricky van Wolfswinkel||6|
|Manchester United Player Ratings|
|David De Gea||7|
Manchester United host Tottenham at Old Trafford on New Year's Day, while Norwich have a hugely important away trip to fellow relegation battlers Crystal Palace to contend with.