It was as if a bygone era had gripped the Hawthorns yesterday. Manchester United turned back the clock to a time when they were dominant on Premiership away grounds. They might have won just twice outside Old Trafford in the league before yesterday, but this was convincing, a much surer victory than Arsenal enjoyed at the same stadium on Boxing Day.
To enhance the afternoon’s throwback feel, it was achieved through old-fashioned virtues. David Beckham passed the ball like a prince, a radar could not have tracked Paul Scholes’s movement off it, and Roy Keane, returning from a hamstring strain, drove his midfield demonically.
There was also something old-fashioned about the excess of respect Gary Megson’s West Bromwich Albion team showed their visitors. True, they could still be playing now and not have found how to curb United’s attacking, in which Scholes, Beckham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer revolved round the central point of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
For 55 seconds yesterday, one of the biggest upsets of the season loomed. Then, in customary style, West Bromwich Albion threw away the lead, ended up with nothing in a must-win game and now find themselves bottom of the Premiership.
At the top, Manchester United, for 24 hours at least, have closed the gap on Arsenal after a clinical display of ruthless finishing.
As usual, the Hawthorns generated a terrific atmosphere but there was an extra buzz about the place for one the most eagerly awaited League fixtures in years and one that neither side could realistically afford to lose.
Despite having not won in the Premiership since the end of November, Albion, who scared the life out of Arsenal here on Boxing Day before going down 2-1, fancied their chances of an upset. But within five minutes they could have gone behind, Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer took the ball round Russell Hoult but missed his kick with the goal at his mercy.
A minute later the Hawthorns erupted when, just as against the champions, Albion took a shock early lead. Jason Koumas brought the ball down halfway inside United's half, ran into yards of space vacated by the visiting defence and beat Barthez with a low shot into the corner.
Before the cheers could die down, however, United were level. With the next attack, Ruud van Nistelrooy ran on to David Beckham's glorious chip and smacked the ball home with the inside of his right foot for his 21st goal of the season and ninth in the Premiership.
It was a breathtaking start and the excitement continued as both sides put together some scintillating attacking moves.
Roy Keane is back. And with him, so too is the Manchester United swagger of old. Sir Alex Ferguson's men, expertly marshalled by their Irish talisman, played with a fluency and sharpness in front of goal not witnessed for many a month. Arsenal and the other Premiership contenders have been warned.
West Bromwich Albion had given Arsène Wenger's table-toppers a real fright two weeks ago, but yesterday's visitors were never unduly troubled. And, with most of his first-teamers back to full fitness, Ferguson will be looking to build on this, only their third away win of the season.
Ryan Giggs was absent from the United team squad, having been rested by his manager. Ferguson denied that his decision had anything to do with the boos directed at his left-winger last weekend, but it has become increasingly obvious that the Welshman's form is suffering. Judging from past Manchester United experience, a winter break could be just the tonic he needs. Peter Schmeichel was the last high-profile player to be granted a mid-season holiday, and the great Dane returned so refreshed that he helped United to their 1999 Treble.
Not that Giggs was missed much. A clever free-kick by Ruud van Nistelrooy after six minutes caught the Albion defence napping and allowed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to nip and run at goal. Russell Hoult, whose name continues to be linked with a call-up to the England squad for the friendly against Australia next month, kept his nerve as well as his eye on the ball to get a vital block and deny the Norwegian.
This was an important victory for Manchester United, away to inferior opposition that brought back memories of their better teams and seasons when such fixtures were foregone conclusions. With one important difference.
Ryan Giggs, currently exhausted, out of form or in Sir Alex Ferguson's doghouse, depending on what you believe from United's ministry of disinformation, did not even warrant a place on the bench.
He was hardly missed either, as United recorded only their third away victory of the season with a win that was far more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. West Bromwich Albion started the contest without fear and with great confidence, a sixth-minute goal fuelling their fans' optimism. But, sadly for the relegation-threatened club, it merely served to provoke United into the sort of response that was the hallmark of their great championship years.
Indeed, no less an authority than David Beckham commented last week that his team's league problems stemmed from their inability to brush aside the Premiership's lower clubs with the arrogance that was once the norm.