West Ham 2-4 Manchester United
Wayne Rooney struck a stunning second-half hat-trick as United roared back from 2-0 down to claim a pulsating Barclays Premier League win at Upton Park.
Mark Noble converted a pair of first-half penalties for West Ham to seemingly deal the Reds’ title hopes an untimely setback. United had bossed the match despite Noble’s double, however, and deservedly overturned the scoreline in the second period.
Rooney curled home a magnificent long-range free-kick, thundered in a superb leveller and converted a penalty in a breathless 15-minute spell, before substitute Javier Hernandez turned home a late clincher to cap another rousing fightback from the Reds.
Watching from the stands in the second instalment of his touchline ban, Sir Alex Ferguson will again wonder how his side insist on putting all their followers through the wringer, before switching his attention to Wednesday’s Champions League trip to Stamford Bridge.
With the visit to Chelsea looming, Nani, Dimitar Berbatov and Chicharito all started on the bench, while Edwin van der Sar was a precautionary absentee with a minor groin injury. Sir Alex's defensive selection was preordained, with Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Rafael all injured and Jonny Evans starting his three match ban. Fabio and Patrice Evra started at full-back, flanking a central-defensive partnership of Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic.
As United bossed the early exchanges, Smalling's first telling contribution of the game was a thumping header which Rob Green comfortably tipped over the bar. After another corner, however, the Reds fell behind. Thomas Hitzelsperger's gargantuan pass released Carlton Cole and, as the striker flicked the ball over Evra, the defender's raised hand blocked the ball’s path. Few protests met referee Lee Mason’s award of a penalty, which Noble duly dispatched past Kuszczak.
Despite the shock of falling behind against the run of play, United’s response was bright, with Antonio Valencia particularly prominent in some menacing forward probes. The Ecuadorian’s crosses prompted a succession of scrambled clearances from the hosts, as did a Wayne Rooney centre which narrowly eluded Ji-sung Park’s attempted diving header.
The Reds’ steady attempts to find a route back into the game were handed another blow after 23 minutes as Cole won his second penalty, advancing into the area and tumbling over the outstretched leg of Vidic. Unquestionably a foul, but outside the area according to the Serbian, inside it in the view of the striker and, most importantly, referee Mason. Noble steered home another unerring finish.
The flow of the game continued in the same vein, with United comfortably bossing possession. The Reds’ first real opening fell to Ji-sung Park, whose stinging half-volley was somehow turned over the bar by Green. From the subsequent corner Smalling rose highest again, but steered his header wide.
On the break, Hitzelsperger thrashed a half-volley wide with the hosts’ first notable attempt in open play. The German then came within a yard of West Ham’s third goal with a superb curling free-kick, awarded after Vidic had missed a header and subsequently hauled down Demba Ba. Much to the hosts’ ire, the Serbian was merely booked, while the home support demanded a dismissal.
The interval came and went with the deficit poised at two goals, and Sir Alex endeavoured to prompt a revival by introducing Chicharito at the expense of Evra, and moving Giggs to left-back. Little more than 30 seconds of the second period had passed when the makeshift full-back crossed for the substitute, who stabbed an effort over the bar in a promising start.
Though West Ham defended stoutly, with Manuel da Costa particularly outstanding in the centre, it seemed a matter of time before United’s growing pressure yielded a breakthrough. When it arrived, in keeping with the game’s previous goals, it came from a set-piece. With 25 minutes remaining, Noble brought down Carrick outside the West Ham area. Rooney stepped up before steering a wonderful free-kick round the wall and inside Green’s left-hand post. United’s dander was up: game on.
Within seconds of the restart, Gibson’s long-range effort was deflected wide, while Carrick’s hooked effort from the subsequent corner only fractionally cleared Green’s crossbar. The England goalkeeper then had to be alert to turn away a near-post poke from substitute Dimitar Berbatov, who had replaced Park.
As West Ham’s defence creaked, Rooney again struck. A patient passing move culminated in Valencia flashing a left-footed pass inside for Rooney, and the striker’s superb first touch took him away from a cluster of bodies and created the room for a devastating low finish past Green. United’s travelling contingent went wild, and time remained for another notch of delirium.
Berbatov drew a fine save from Green with a stinging effort from just inside the area as the white-shirted visitors poured forward. Fabio’s marauding run down the right flank culminated in a cross which struck Matthew Upson’s arm, prompting the award of the game’s third penalty, which Rooney duly slotted home to complete his own treble and United’s comeback. Still, the Reds pressed for more and looked to exploit gaps in the increasingly ragged home defence. With six minutes remaining, Chicharito notched his now customary goal by sliding in from close range after Giggs’ cross had deflected through the legs of two defenders.
“We shall not be moved,” roared the jubilant away support, who had witnessed yet another instance of the sheer bloody-mindedness that has so often separated United from all the rest.
Tomasz Kuszczak - A strangely quiet afternoon for the Pole, who conceded two goals despite facing almost no shots in open play.
Fabio - Another fine shift at right-back, and the youngster's attacking instincts and determination prompted the penalty which completed United's turnaround.
Chris Smalling - One or two nervy moments in the first half, but superb after the break against West Ham's sporadic raids. Came close to his first league goal with an early header which Green tipped over.
Nemanja Vidic - A welcome return for the skipper, who enjoyed mixed fortunes. He was perhaps harshly deemed to have fouled Cole in the box, but may also have seen red for a foul on Ba.
Patrice Evra - A quiet outing from the Frenchman, who uncharacteristically conceded a cheap penalty and then made way at half-time as United chased the game.
Antonio Valencia - Magnificent work in the first period especially, giving Wayne Bridge a torrid time, and played an incisive pass to Rooney for the Reds' equaliser.
Darron Gibson - Booked in the first period for lashing out in frustration, Gibbo maintained important patience and discipline in the second period and underpinned United's approach play.
Michael Carrick - Chanced his arm from distance on a couple of occasions, but was integral to United's patient approach play in the second half.
Ryan Giggs - An excellent all-round display from the ageless veteran, who did well in the first period but shone after the break as a makeshift attacking full-back. Incredible.
Ji-sung Park - Brilliant to see Ji back again. Perhaps should have scored in the first half, but looked neat and energetic in his first outing since Boxing Day.
Wayne Rooney - Quietly ploughed a lone furrow in the first half, but burst into life with two stunning goals and a clinical penalty to snatch a priceless win.
Chicharito (on for Evra, 46) - Made a huge impact, giving West Ham's central defenders more to think about before nabbing another goal to clinch the points.
Dimitar Berbatov (on for Park, 64) - Also had a huge say in United's attacking play; holding up the ball brilliantly and bringing others into play.
Nani (on for Rooney, 88) - Looked lively in his brief cameo, and is now fresh for Wednesday's trip to the Bridge.