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Manchester United may have climbed into sixth place for the first time since November on Saturday, but their scrappy 1-0 win over Norwich looked every bit a mid-table clash. The champions struggled to get going in a first half dominated by the hosts, lifted their heads briefly when Danny Welbeck profited from a fortunate deflection to secure the points, and then slipped back into a slumber in the closing stages. They did just enough to win, but stopped a long way short of announcing their return to the title race.
Perhaps United don't need to make a statement of their intention after labouring to two victories in two days and four in succession to close the gap to fourth, but they will need to improve on their performance at Carrow Road when Tottenham visit Old Trafford on Wednesday and for the trip to Chelsea in three weeks' time. That Norwich managed more than twice as many shots as the champions offers an indication of United's lack of adventure as their problems in the final third continued. Results might be everything at the moment, but two more goals would have seen them leapfrog Everton into fifth.
Although David Moyes was hindered in his team selection by injuries to Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, that should not excuse the manager's decision to rely on Ryan Giggs in a supporting role to the disappointing Javier Hernandez. Moyes may have planned for Welbeck to be given a rest after his 90 minutes against Hull on Boxing Day, but Rooney's late withdrawal with a groin strain made his inclusion essential, as he proved with his winning goal. It was Welbeck's fourth strike in his last five appearances and he now possesses a better shots-to-goal ratio than Luis Suarez in the Premier League this season.
Moyes should be credited for acknowledging his mistake as his tinkering helped to gain United three points for the second match in a row, but questions remain over his long-term vision for how he wants the team to play. There are standards to be met at United - not only in terms of results - and a soporific first half fell some way short of those demands. It took until the 45th minute for the champions to muster their first effort on target, while Robert Snodgrass had more shots and created more chances before the break than United's entire starting line-up combined.
The return of Nemanja Vidic after three weeks on the sidelines proved to be a timely boost for Moyes, with the captain's organisation at Norwich's eight corners playing a crucial role in United picking up only their second clean sheet in eight top-flight fixtures. However, for the manager to truly prove that he is progressing as his first season unfolds, the return of Rooney and Van Persie must coincide with more convincing performances. That half of United's ten Premier League victories have been secured by a single-goal margin - a higher proportion than any of the current top four - reveals plenty of room for improvement.
Despite these deficiencies, perhaps the main point to take from the last month is that the embers of the winning mentality instilled by Sir Alex Ferguson continue to glow. United have performed well below their capabilities under Moyes, but they have at least started to find some consistency in recent weeks. With key players returning to fitness and the comforting knowledge that they often improve in the second half of the campaign, there may be hope yet that the champions can still spring a surprise in the race at the top.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.