After what has felt like an eternal international break, United resumed their pursuit of the Premier League title with a trip to Upton Park to face West Ham. Having previously suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat earlier in the season against the hammers, United were keen to set the score straight and open up an 8 point lead over chasers Arsenal. Although West Ham have been languishing towards the foot of the table for much of the season, recent form suggested that United were in for a tough game, given the reds relatively poor run and West Ham’s revival. United however were boosted by the return of captain Nemanja Vidic and winger Ji Sung Park after spells out injured, with Antonio Valencia also making his first start since his comeback from injury.
With a priceless three points on the line, United began with real tempo and purpose, as Valencia in particular displayed exactly what United have been missing in his absence, giving Wayne Bridge a torrid time at left back. With West Ham pinned in their half, it appeared that they were there for the taking, and it would be a matter of time before the onslaught of goals came. Yet typically away from home this season, United were the makers of their own downfall on 8 minutes, as a relatively speculative long ball over the top got the better of Patrice Evra, who obstructed Carlton Cole’s flick with his hand leaving referee Lee Mason no alternative but to point to the spot. Mark Noble calmly dispatched his spot kick, leaving United again with the prospect of having to come from behind in order to keep their title bid on track.
Driven by Valencia and Giggs, United responded well from going behind, as again we attacked persistently creating great pressure on the West Ham goal, although frustratingly never finding the final ball required. And on 20 minutes, United were again punished for a defensive lapse, as Nemanja Vidic allowed Carlton Cole to turn him on the edge of the area, before tripping the former England front man in the box to give West Ham another penalty. Mark Noble stepped up to send the Hammers 2-0 up, leaving United’s title charge in the lurch, as the prospect of a 3rd straight away defeat loomed. Replays showed that Vidic’s contact may have been outside the penalty area, yet the Serbian centre half was lucky to escape a red card on the stroke of half time as he tangled with Demba Ba, in what was a half to forget for United.
With the reds staring defeat in the face, Fergie sprung a tactical surprise by bringing off Patrice Evra for Hernandez, and shifting Ryan Giggs to the unfamiliar role of left back to give us extra attacking impetuous. The results were almost immediate, as a wounded United began to ratchet up the pressure on a cautious looking West Ham side. It was merely a case of when United could score as to whether they could salvage all three points, and on 64 minutes, Wayne Rooney delivered a priceless lifeline, as he curled a superb free kick passed Rob Green. With the Hammers reeling, United soon equalised, as again Rooney provided a moment of immense quality, controlling Valencia’s pass before rifling into the bottom corner sending the travelling reds into bedlam. And a 14 minute hat trick was completed moments later, after the superb Fabio Da Silva stormed down the right flank, his cross struck Mathew Upson’s arm, leaving Lee Masonno choice other than to award the 3rd penalty of the match. Rooney stepped up and completed another classic United comeback and his hat trick. Hernandez rounded off a superb second half for the reds in typical fashion, as he tapped in a Ryan Giggs cross on 84 minutes to put the result beyond doubt and send us 8 points clear at the top with 7 games to go.
Football is a funny old game. At half time, Arsenal and Chelsea were licking their lips at the prospect of a real opportunity to close the ground on United and really put some pressure on us. Yet by 5 oclock, the gap had in fact widened, as both of our title challengers dropped silly points which could prove decisive come the end of May. For United, our destiny is in our own hands, if we manage to avoid defeat to Chelsea and Arsenal, whilst winning the games we are expected too then number 19 beckons. However with many big games in both the Champions League and FA Cup to come, nothing is a formality and our focus has to remain as strong as ever at the end of what could be a historic season for the club.