ALBION’S three-game unbeaten run came to a valiant end as Gareth McAuley’s early – not-to-mention unfortunate – own goal was all that separated the two sides in normal time.
And it took a stunning shot from sub Robin van Persie in the first minute of stoppage time to make the points safe for the league leaders.
Neither team had got into any rhythm when in-form centre-half McAuley inadvertently diverted Ashley Young’s cross past Ben Foster in the ninth minute.
United went onto dictate the rest of the half but despite their dominance, Foster was only called on to make one difficult save, when he brilliantly pushed a Young snapshot onto his bar.
It was a different story after the break as Steve Clarke’s side took the game to United. And only the crossbar denied that man McAuley a goal at the other end 19 minutes from time.
The Baggies could not deny Sir Alex Ferguson’s side a seventh win in eight games – but the Red Devils knew they’d been in a game.
Top entertained sixth at Old Trafford, with the leaders starting the day seven points clear of second-placed Manchester rivals City.
George Thorne was handed only his second-ever Barclays Premier League start at the Theatre of Dreams – just a day after returning from his loan spell at Championship strugglers Peterborough – as Clarke made seven changes.
Gabriel Tamas, Liam Ridgewell, Markus Rosenberg, Graham Dorrans, Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long also came in, with Youssouf Mulumbu (hamstring), Jonas Olsson (groin), Goran Popov (hamstring) and Zoltan Gera left out altogether while Romelu Lukaku, James Morrison and Marc-Antoine Fortune dropped to the bench.
Despite being without the injured Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson sprang a surprise by starting the Premier League’s joint 13-goal top scorer, van Persie, on the bench.
Albion quickly settled into their stride on the big stage and moments after Long’s forceful run had been halted by Michael Carrick’s last-ditch challenge, Dorrans recorded the first shot of the game, firing well wide from 25 yards.
United replied with an effort of their own in the seventh minute when Nemanja Vidic was equally wayward with a header from Young’s corner.
But the hosts DID find the back of their former keeper Foster’s net two minutes later. Dorrans did well to read Young’s attempted one-two with Shinji Kagawa but miscued his clearance. Young immediately whipped the loose ball across the Albion box and the luckless McAuley inadvertently diverted it past Foster with his right leg.
United proceeded to keep Albion pegged back but the Baggies worked hard to limit their chances. However, a loose Odemwingie pass was seized upon by Tom Cleverley on 18 and from his tee up, Danny Welbeck forced a comfortable save out of Foster from 18 yards.
The Baggies responded with a long spell of possession of their own but the best they could muster was a low Long cross which was gobbled up by David De Gea.
United were soon back on the attack and Thorne, who was having a solid game, did well to get in the way of Carrick’s ferocious shot from just inside the penalty area.
Following a lengthy lull in goalmouth action, Young was well off target with an instinctive ten-yard header after Welbeck’s 20-yard shot had taken a wicked deflection off Thorne.
United went much closer on 33. The Red Devils launched a counter-attack after defending a Baggies free-kick and Antonio Valencia’s cross fell perfectly for Young, who saw his 15-yard half-volley brilliantly tipped onto the bar by Foster.
From Young’s ensuing corner, it took a stunning goalline clearance from Tamas to keep out Carrick’s close-range shot.
But Albion were far from being outclassed and Odemwingie produced their first genuinely threatening moment on 40 when he jinked past Valencia and Chris Smalling on a charge into the United box, only to shoot weakly wide of the near post.
Foster inadvertently almost gifted United a second goal on 44 when he lost his footing in controlling McAuley’s back-pass. Under pressure from Welbeck, the off-balance keeper managed to hook the ball into the United striker’s midriff and was relieved to see the rebound bounce just wide of the empty net for a goal-kick.
But Albion rallied during the dying stages. Vidic had to take evasive action to prevent Chris Brunt’s awkward free-kick delivery troubling De Gea before the Albion skipper drilled another inviting set-piece into the United wall.
United were back on the front foot at the start of the second half and Tamas did well to cut out Cleverley’s dangerous cross – before Thorne blocked Kagawa’s goalbound shot in the box.
But Albion strode forward with purpose themselves in the 50th minute and De Gea was relieved to see Brunt’s 30-yard rocket fly straight at him.
Two minutes later, a Brunt free-kick caused havoc in the United box and Carrick twice came to the hosts’ rescue, blocking Thorne’s attempted header across goal before diverting away McAuley’s swivel shot from the rebound.
The Baggies were enjoying their best spell of the game as they prodded and probed for a leveller, but Brunt was wayward with a 55th-minute effort from distance.
United were back on the attack a minute later and Ridgewell got an important nick on Valencia’s acute 12-yard drive to divert the ball wide of the far post.
Albion were soon putting the United goal under serious pressure again, though, and Evra did well to take the sting out of Dorrans’ 18-yard shot from Odemwingie’s cross.
The game was tentatively poised and Young had his head in his hands on 63 when he completely missed his kick in the box from Valencia’s centre.
Valencia was proving a handful and he brought a fine finger-tip save out of Foster with a rising angled drive.
Shortly after van Persie had entered the fray in place of Kagawa, Clarke rang his first change on 67 by replacing Rosenberg with Lukaku.
And there was real drama at the United end on 71. McAuley smashed the United bar after rising above Smalling to divert Brunt’s corner towards goal with his shoulder.
Then, on 76, Morrison, who had been on the field a matter of seconds in place of Brunt, combined with Lukaku to tee up Odemwingie, who saw his goalbound shot diverted away by Vidic’s frame.
With Albion throwing men forward, it was inevitable United would exploit the gaps at the back and Young went close when he cut inside and fired fiercely at Foster from a tight angle.
On 82, Patrice Evra fed van Persie and his low shot from just inside the box was blocked by Foster’s outstretched leg.
The impressive McAuley then slid in on Welbeck to prevent the England striker getting on the end of van Persie’s throughball.
Albion gave United another fright three minutes from time, though, when Odemwingie unleashed a 20-yard effort which flew wide off Vidic.
Foster was pushing the likes of Thorne and Tamas all the way for the Baggies man-of-the-match vote and the No.1 pulled off a terrific save to keep out Welbeck from Valencia’s pull-back.
Albion kept plugging away but the game was finally up in the first minute of stoppage time when van Persie gave Foster no chance with a stunning 20-yard curler.
MAN UTD (4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling, Vidic, Evans, Evra (c); Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley (Scholes 82), Young; Kagawa (van Persie 65), Welbeck. Subs not used: Lindegaard (gk), Ferdinand, Giggs, Hernandez, Buttner.
ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Tamas, Ridgewell; Thorne, Brunt (Morrison 75); Dorrans (Fortune 82), Rosenberg (Lukaku 67), Odemwingie; Long. Subs not used: Myhill (gk), Jara Reyes, Dawson, El Ghanassy.
GOALS: UNITED – McAuley (own goal 9), van Persie (90+1).
BOOKINGS: UNITED – Valencia (foul 63). ALBION – Dorrans (ungentlemanly conduct 62).
REFEREE: J Moss (West Yorkshire).
ALBION STARMAN: George Thorne.