Manchester United 1 -0 West Ham United
Football is funny game. Rife with ironies and sometimes implausible behavior from many of it’s millionaire performers. Who would have gone out on a bitterly cold Wednesday night in Salford if they’d have known they’d get fifteen minutes of superb, speedy hell-for-leather football followed by 78 minutes of utter drudgery? Still, it was surely nice for Sir Alex Ferguson to win get a second clean sheet in a row. Kudos for United’s back four, especially as they have been the subject of so much scorn and derision this season, especially when Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have been missing in action. United’s back four–Rafael, Büttner, Jones and Smalling–got a little awkward and panicky every now and again, but acquitted themselves more or less well.
It was a particularly strange night for Wayne Rooney. Having recently suffered a knee problem and then the terrible loss of his wife’s Colleen’s sickly younger sister, Rose, Wazza did not seem to have his head fully screwed on. His ninth minute goal may have been all United actually needed, but he also skied a 79th minute penalty into the Stretford End. It was Rooney’s fourth penalty miss this season and the Gaffer was visibly apoplectic, still angry enough at the post-match press conference to dwell upon it at length. Still, although Robin Van Persie is the likeliest player to take over penalty-taking duties, the old warrior clearly misses having Dennis Irwin oe even Ruud Van Nistelrooy to rely upon. My Aunty Joan has already sent her email messages out to the appropriate authorities insisting that Anderson be given the dirty job. It’s actually a good idea, if the lad is fit enough to play.
The Red Devils were dead jammy for certain, although West Ham threatened a lot in the second half, but always seemed too anemic up front and even Rooney’s spot-kick miss went for naught. With a fourth round cup tie looming against Fulham, even a striker as shiftless and stupor-bound as the one-and-only Dimitar Berbatov will surely be yearning to show something special to his old colleagues. Never in my memory have United been the beneficiaries of both pure luck and equally dreadful defenses throughout their division. A quick holiday frolic in bankrupt Spain might be nice, but, if the Gaffer can’t get his boys a dose of sunshine, Mike Phelan standing by with some oxygen and a mask might have to suffice.
Rooney’s ninth goal of the season came in the ninth minute as Anderson, yet another player back from injury, fired a perfect left-footed seeing-eye laser pass, splitting the complete Hammers defense as if it were a rotten apple. Perfectly placed to Javíer Hernandez, the ball was hoovered up by the Mexican striker. Caught at a questionable angle, Chicharito took one deft touch before tapping the ball into the six yard box where Rooney hared in, sliding forward at exactly the perfect moment to push the ball home off his studs past goalkeeper Jussi Jaskalainen.
United sparkled for another five minutes or so, but then the blown bubbles West Ham fans like to sing about abandoned the champagne. West Ham were utterly lackluster and poor Anders Lindegaard, back after more than two months on the sidelines, had nothing to do whatsoever between the sticks. Although United were definitely the dominant force on the pitch, only Nani truly came close to scoring when West Ham’s newly-blooded right back, Daniel Potts, blocked a beautiful rocket from Nani. after it beat Jaskalainen. The Finnish goalkeeper did do a little better just before the whistle, however,when he made a clean save of another Rooney pile driver.
Just how bad the second half was going to be became obvious almost instantaneously. When Chicharito stole the ball from Alou Diarra in the middle of the box, all he had to do was tap it past Jaskalainen. Instead he blasted a sitter over the bar.
Meanwhile, Sam Allardyce’s relentless caterwauling from the sidelines started to take effect at around the hour mark. Like a man waking from a coma, Ricardo Vaz Té, for four seasons the greatest thing that almost happened at both Bolton Wanderers and West Ham, started to dribble like the proximity of the Welsh wizard, Ryan Giggs, was a call to magic. And with both Alexander Büttner and Rafael Da Silva trying to shore up the mediocre runs into empty space on the flanks by a mediocre Nani and a distracted-looking Antonio Valencía, the Portuguese forward was free as a hummingbird to flit and flicker about. None of it came to much, although a loose ball he failed to control around eight yards out accidentally touched the arm of Rafael Da Silva. It surely gave the crowd a scare and had Allardyce close to an apoplectic fit, but it was never on for the referee Phil Dowd to call it a deliberate handball. Minutes later, when Phil Jones botched a pass, an advancing Matt Taylor scooped it up but failed to pass to a lonely Carlton Cole as he waited in vain, unmarked at the far post.
Rooney then made a bollix royale of a penalty United were extremely fortunate to receive when a clumsy Jordan Spence handled a Ryan Giggs cross. Subsequently, Rooney botched his task, but, in all my years of observing Ferguson going about his business, I have never before seen him react with such unfiltered anger at one of his own players as in that moment. At any rate, despite United seeming to be collectively tired out and bereft of all ideas, Ferguson did not succumb to what must have been temptation to bring on Robin Van Persie to sharpen his attack and West Ham just did not seem to own the will or moxy to press the Red Devils’.
Clearly, every game from now on is an important one if United hope to stand any chance of winning a fantasy treble. Getting some get back against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane is a tall order, but not impossible. Sussing Wayne Rooney’s state of mind before this big big game will be a challenge for the fiery old Scot.