Manchester United squandered a chance to put pressure on Premier League leaders Manchester City as Bruno Fernandes’ equaliser spared their blushes in a 1-1 draw at struggling West Bromwich Albion on Sunday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were rocked by Mbaye Diagne’s second minute opener for Albion at the Hawthorns.
Portugal midfielder Fernandes levelled just before half-time with his 19th goal of the season in all competitions.
But United were unable to find a 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.
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.
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.
Rocked by the earliest league goal they had conceded for three years, United tried to respond as Fred’s drive was held by Sam Johnstone.
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.
Solskjaer’s sluggish side managed only one shot in the first 30 minutes as the freezing temperatures seemed to sap them of energy and guile.
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 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 Albion 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.