|Juan Mata is mobbed by his teammates after scoring the winner|
Not 10 days ago, you could authoritatively dismiss the notion that Manchester United were a candidate to compete for a top four place. The poor run of results in December had seemingly put to rest any argument that United were good enough to challenge for the elite places.
Having put together two straight wins in the league over the past four days, United are now firmly back in the equation of a Champions League place via the league, largely due to the wobbly form of at least two of the four sides above the Red Devils. Arsenal and Manchester City have hardly won a league game over the past month, allowing United to eat into their leads with just a couple of positive results.
Such has been the general inconsistency of this season's top clubs that even a semblance of consistency from hereon would comfortably land United third place in the league, let alone fourth. It's now down to four points between 5th and 3rd and with 30 points still to play for, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the season target may yet be achieved via the league.
Last night, at home to Watford, United rode their luck for long periods and struggled to contain the pressing game of the visitors. Indeed, Odion Inghalo contrived to miss a plethora of very decent chances in the box. That failure of ruthlessness was always likely to be punished by the prevailing quality within United's ranks. Anthony Martial was scythed down 20 yards from goal, perfect range. Up stepped captain of the night, Juan Mata to seal what turned out to be more than three points considering the trend of results elsewhere on the night.
With an average age of just 23, United's youthful line-up was always bound to come under intense examination from a very physically and tactically demanding assignment. Full debutant Timothy Fosu-Mensah for instance and Daley Blind seemed bewildered by having to deal with two strikers in Deeney and Inghalo. There's not many times either of them could have come up against a twin pair and yet the 4-4-2 is quickly regaining prominence among premier league sides. Indeed, it is arguable that Leicester's success story this season has a lot to do with that system.
Of the Dutch pair, it was the younger who fared better on the night, using his strength to good effect often and showing maturity beyond his years to remain steadfast in the tackle despite picking up an early yellow card. Goodness knows we could do with another emerging centre back! His teen colleague Marcus Rashford didn't score but cannot be faulted with a bad game having suffered a dearth of service. He did though clear a header off the line---which is as good as a goal I guess.
Memphis Depay on the other hand failed to hit the heights of his last two performances. His efforts were summed up by a first half shot on goal that went out for a throw in.
In the end, United got there. With West Brom away looming on Sunday, the opportunity is there to win three on the bounce for the first time this season. With West Ham United firmly in the reckoning for a Champions League place, we could be in for an enthralling fight for the elite places in the final third of the season. However, because we've had our fingers burned before, we cannot be certain that Louis van Gaal has finally got his act together for a late surge. United remain a poor result from a crisis. It should, however, be of some comfort that they seem to be making strides in the right direction.
On Sunday, Tony Pulis' side will present the same physical and direct challenge that United were uncomfortable with last night. Suffice it is to say that lessons must be learnt from yesterday if the club is to have a more convincing afternoon in the West midlands.