There have been many late comebacks this season. Indeed, Manchester United’s ability turn to mediocre performances into victory is perhaps the defining hallmark of a season that again rests in the Reds hands. This time at the Boleyn Ground, where United has suffered so much in the past, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side came from two down to West Ham United to score a potentially vital win in the Premier League title race. With Chelsea and Arsenal drawing later in the day, United eased two points further ahead, although with matches against both London sides to come, nothing is settled.
With the hosts two goals ahead within 25 minutes United’s visit to east London threatened to be every bit as traumatic as previous matches on this ground. The Reds’ 2-1 defeat in 1992 handed Leeds United the initiative in the old First Division; three years later and a 1-1 draw enabled Blackburn Rovers to take the title. Just six wins in the past 17 visits and a 4-0 loss on this ground in November’s Carling Cup quarter-final attest to the trouble United has faced in east London.
Not this time. Ferguson’s half-time reorganisation of United’s tactics, and Wayne Rooney’s 14 minute hat-trick, settled the game that for much of the opening period seemed beyond the visitors.
“We played like champions today,” Ferguson said, whose team is now seven points clear with as many games to go.
“We didn’t lose our faith in our ability and that was a great boost to us. It was a real championship performance.
“They probably only had two shots at goal, but two-nothing down at half-time you’re under the cosh. I felt we had to go for it. I brought on Chicharito, put Ryan back to left-back. At that point I’m saying to myself goal difference doesn’t matter. Lets get something out of it.
“We kept creating chances in the first half. Valencia had them on toast. He’s so comfortable on the ball, they couldn’t get it off him. In the first half he delivered two or three fantastic balls in, we just didn’t get enough on them to capitalise. But in the second half, when Chicharito comes on, he gives you that lightning pace and he’s threatening them all the time behind. So it meant they were going right back towards the box and gave us a lot of space to operate.”
Yet, Ferguson’s decision to leave out top-goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov, in-form Javier Hernández and winger Nani, seemingly handed West Ham the initiative. Deploying Rooney, not in the deeper position that has prompted a return to form in recent weeks but as a lone front-runner, Ferguson asked veteran Ryan Giggs and newly fit Antonio Valencia to provide width. Indeed the latter, whose ability to run at defenders United has sorely missed, proved a constant threat on the right.
The changes left United disjointed in central midfield and vulnerable in defence, despite Nemanja Vidic’s return to partner Chris Smalling in the heart of the Reds’ back-four. Within 15 minutes the hosts took control of the game as Frank Noble scored from the spot after Patrice Evra handled. Tomas Hitzlsperger’s fine long pass split United’s defence and Carlton Cole drew the Frenchman’s infringement.
Within 10 minutes the Hammers were further ahead, Vidic bringing down Cole for the second spot-kick of the match. United’s captain argued that the foul was outside the area – there were no more than inches in it – but Noble lashed home his second penalty to give the hosts a potentially decisive lead.
It could have been so much worse, with Vidic receiving a caution after bringing down Demba Ba before half-time. As the last man, United’s captain may have been fortunate not to see red, although with the ball not under the Senegalese striker’s control it was hard for referee Lee Mason to judge whether a clear goalscoring opportunity had been denied.
Yet, it is testament to both United’s resilience and Ferguson’s ability to gamble that the Reds turned the game around in the second half. If the 69-year-old Scot had offered West Ham the momentum with his initial team selection then Hernández’ introduction for Evra radically altered both United’s state of mind and the match.
The Mexican’s pace, Valencia’s willingness to run at Wayne Bridge and substitute Berbatov’s understanding of space, opened up the game, turning United’s ample first half possession into chances and goals.
Rooney superbly curled in a 25-yard free-kick on the hour to bring United back into the match, before the England man skipped past two players to lash home a second with 20 to go. The striker brought down a curtain on a horrible 12 months by completing his hat-trick from the spot after Matt Upson handled Fabio da Silva’s attempted cross. And United’s come-back was complete with the inevitable Hernández goal with five minutes to go.
It was only a fifth away win in the Premier League this season but on chances alone a thoroughly deserved one. There is also a sense that United’s victory will have deeply hurt both Arsenal and Chelsea, whose inconsistency has enabled Ferguson’s side to pull away.
“It makes an impact on us. Seven games left. You can count the games down one by one,” added Ferguson.
“It ends up you run out of games and hopefully we’re there. Arsenal have games in hand and it could go to goal difference but I somehow don’t think so.”
The Reds excellent recent record at the Emirates will again be put to the test, although by the time United visits north London in May the title could already be over, with Chelsea seemingly focused on Europe and Arsenal simply not mentally strong enough to compete. It’s a charge, whatever United’s weaknesses, that cannot be levelled at the Reds.
“We don’t give up. No matter what the score in the game, we keep going,” Giggs told ManUtd.com.
“We’d played some good stuff in the first half. We just gave silly goals away. We were getting into good areas but the final ball wasn’t good enough. We just needed to concentrate more in the final third. We felt if we kept creating chances and got a goal back we could go on and win it.”
So it proved and with United’s title rivals dropping points, the victory may yet be pivotal. This time, on this ground, it went in United’s favour.
West Ham – 442 – Green; Jacobsen, Upson, Da Costa, Bridge; O’Neil (Obinna 83), Parker, Noble (Keane 83), Hitzlsperger; Cole (Piquionne 68), Ba
United – 4231 – Kuszczak; Fabio Da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, Evra (Hernández 46); Carrick, Gibson; Valencia, Park Ji-Sung (Berbatov 64), Giggs; Rooney (Nani 87)
Attendance – 34,546
Man of the Match – Valencia
Possession: West Ham 37% – 63% United
Attempts: 6 – 18
On Target: 2 – 9
Corners: 0 – 16
Fouls: 10 – 9