[Premier League] West Ham United 0-2 Manchester United
West Ham: Ricardo Vaz Te (16), Mohamed Diame (55)
Man Utd: Antonio Valencia (31), Robin van Persie (77)
Manchester United took time to hit anything like top gear at Upton Park and had to settle for a 2-2 draw with West Ham, the same scoreline as the FA Cup third-round tie earlier in the season.
Ricardo Vaz Te's opener was cancelled out by Antonio Valencia's first goal of the season but Mohamed Diame's fine strike edged the capital club in front again. Shinji Kagawa, who also set up Valencia's effort, hit the woodwork in the 77th minute and Robin van Persie converted the rebound to salvage a point.
The result means the Reds will be champions if six points are picked up from the last five games - even if Manchester City continue winning as they did tonight by beating Wigan 1-0 at home, courtesy of Carlos Tevez's second-half strike.
Sir Alex Ferguson made only one change to the starting XI on duty at Stoke on Sunday with Rafael replacing Javier Hernandez, prompting Phil Jones and Wayne Rooney to move further forward, albeit as part of a fluid formation.
The Hammers made a furious start and pressed in the opening stages but there was only one moment of danger. Andy Carroll was afforded far too much time on the edge of the box and an offside flag was raised against Kevin Nolan in the middle as the on-loan Liverpool striker’s shot rolled wide.
United were still struggling to gain a foothold in the game when Carroll headed over the top from a corner after a quarter of an hour and it was no great surprise when the hosts opened the scoring soon afterwards. Kagawa’s misplaced pass was pounced upon by Diame and he invited Matt Jarvis to take on Rio Ferdinand. The winger beat the ex-Hammer comfortably and crossed to Carroll, who headed down for Vaz Te to dive and nod past Rafael and Nemanja Vidic on the line.
Leveller: Antonio Valencia (right) high-fives Rafael Da Silva after making it 1-1
There was no initial response from the Reds with Rooney’s wayward shot the only effort registered in the opening half an hour but an equaliser arrived following a fine move down the left flank. Van Persie threaded a pass through James Collins’ legs to work the ball back to Kagawa and the Japan international danced his way into the area to tee up Valencia for a simple tap-in, with the winger becoming the 19th different league scorer for the leaders this term.
Tap-in: Antonio Valencia was on hand to convert Shinji Kagawa's cross and equalise for Man United
Diame got the better of Michael Carrick to lash a drive into the side-netting and Vaz Te thumped well wide as Sam Allardyce’s side produced a positive reaction while Nolan tumbled under the merest touch from Vidic in a desperate bid to win a penalty that left referee Lee Probert unimpressed.
Probert then failed to punish Carroll’s ludicrous challenge on David De Gea from a corner with the yellow card the least it clearly warranted but, thankfully, the keeper was back on his feet after receiving treatment. The Londoners must have been disappointed to end the half on level terms as the move that led to Valencia’s goal was the only one United created that carried any real menace.
The start of the second half saw an immediate improvement with van Persie heading Rooney’s precise cross frustratingly behind Jones, who was unable to make a proper connection when a goal would have been certain. Yet it did not provoke a spell of sustained pressure as Vidic was forced into a tremendous headed clearance at the other end to prevent Nolan from reaching a Jarvis cross.
Indeed, West Ham continued to push forward and Carroll, unconcerned by collecting a belated booking for a flare-up with De Gea, smashed a long-range effort close to the Spaniard’s goal. When Diame turned Rooney easily on the edge of the box, the midfielder curled a delightful finish through a crowd of players and into the net to regain the lead for the hosts.
Jussi Jaaskelainen was called into action for the first time with the hour-mark approaching when he made a miraculous stop with his boot to deny van Persie but the Dutchman was offside in any case. Jaaskelainen was then fortunate when a well-placed van Persie corner saw Rooney's scuffed shot skip past the Finn, only for Gary O'Neil to hack away off the line.
At least Sir Alex's side were starting to maintain a decent tempo and rediscovering glimpses of the form that has taken them clear at the top of the table. Only a wonderful one-handed save by Jaaskelainen kept out van Persie's header from a Valencia centre as the Reds clicked through the gears, replacing Rooney with Ryan Giggs.
Kagawa moved into a central position with Giggs stationed on the left and the former Borussia Dortmund schemer was heavily involved in the second equaliser. Collecting a Carrick pass, he blasted in a splendid shot that hit both posts and van Persie was on hand to emphatically lift the rebound into the roof of the net. TV replays showed United's top scorer was offside at the moment the initial shot was unleashed.
Hernandez was introduced, surprisingly at the expense of the influential Kagawa, and forced another good stop out of Jaaskelainen from Carrick's astute pass. With time running out, van Persie slashed a wild attempt off target and Carrick survived a shout from the crowd for handball, even though the ball hit his chest.
There were chances for late drama in stoppage time as Hernandez was unable to convert a lovely cross by Giggs due to Carroll's brilliant tackle, capping an impressive display by the centre-forward, and substitute Matty Taylor spurned an opening for the Hammers by firing over the bar.
United's lead may have been trimmed to 13 points but, ahead of City's trip to Tottenham on Sunday, the Reds remain very much in pole position to land a record 20th title.