Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists Manchester United can still catch Premier League leaders Manchester City despite a damaging 1-1 draw at struggling West Brom on Sunday.
Solskjaer’s side were rocked by Mbaye Diagne’s second-minute opener for Albion at the Hawthorns.
Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes levelled just before half-time with his 19th goal of the season in all competitions.
United were unable to break down second-bottom Albion again and had to settle for a third damaging draw in their last four league matches.
They moved above Leicester into second place, but sit seven points behind City, who have a game in hand.
“We should play better but we gave ourselves a tough start. You have 90 minutes to make amends but we didn’t build that momentum until late in the first half,” Solskjaer said.
“They put a cross in and the boy finished well. We did get down the sides sometimes but didn’t have anybody to tap them in. One of these days we weren’t where we should have been.”
United have lost just once in 18 league games and are unbeaten in 19 away league matches, but they left the icy West Midlands well aware City are now firmly in pole position to win the title.
“It’s a compliment for the boys that we got into (the) position we are now. We won’t let them run away with it,” Solskjaer said.
“We’re playing them soon. We’re not giving it away early, no, we’re not!”
After the blistering form that carried them into the title race across December and January, United are stumbling while City have won their last 11 league games.
Aware of the physical threat posed by Sam Allardyce’s teams, Solskjaer had warned his players to put their “bodies on the line” to deal with Albion’s aerial assault.
But that message clearly didn’t sink in as Albion took the lead after just 83 seconds.
Conor Gallagher swung over a teasing cross from the right and Diagne overpowered United defender Victor Lindelof as he muscled past him before thumping a diving header beyond David de Gea.
It was the 29-year-old Senegal striker’s first goal in four appearances since his loan move from Galatasaray in January.
– Fernandes to the rescue –
Diagne won another duel with Lindelof, but to the relief of the United centre-back, this time the header sailed wide of the far post.
United’s defenders were struggling every time Albion put the ball in the air and Conor Townsend’s cross found Robert Snodgrass for a header that De Gea tipped over.
But, as he has so often since signing from Sporting Lisbon last year, Fernandes bailed United out in the 44th minute.
Harry Maguire showed some much-needed urgency as he advanced from the back to find Luke Shaw, who underlined the dramatic improvement he has shown this season with a fine cross from the left towards Fernandes.
Swivelling to meet it with a superb left-foot volley, Fernandes thundered his shot into the top corner from 12 yards.
Since his league debut for United in February 2020, only Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski have been directly involved in more goals in Europe’s five major divisions than Fernandes.
United were denied a penalty when referee Craig Pawson consulted the pitchside monitor to overturn his initial decision after Seyi Ajayi made contact with Maguire.
Mason Greenwood forced a good save from Sam Johnstone soon after replacing the ineffective Anthony Martial, with Scott McTominay’s follow-up kicked off the line by Darnell Furlong.
Diagne should have won it for West Brom in the closing stages, but he missed a pair of golden opportunities.
After barging past Maguire, Diagne saw De Gea save his tame close-range effort, then in the final moments he shot woefully wide from six yards.
To United’s intense frustration, their former keeper Johnstone made a brilliant finger-tip save in stoppage time to turn Maguire’s header onto the post.