Manchester United move to within a point of Premier League leaders Chelsea after a comfortable win over West Ham United at Old Trafford tonight. Two goals from in-form Wayne Rooney and a late strike from Michael Owen were plenty enough to beat Gianfranco Zola’s relegation-threatened side in the driving Manchester snow.
Antonio Valencia and Rooney were the capital side’s principal tormentors as United recovered from Saturday’s heavy defeat at Everton. The England striker scored his 26th and 27th goals of a highly fruitful campaign – each headed home from Valencia’s right-wing delivery.
Sir Alex Ferguson recalled Nemanja Vidic to the starting line-up following an 11 match absence with a trapped nerve. However, the giant Serbian’s central defensive partner in crime, Rio Ferdinand, remained in the stands with a recurring back injury despite completing a four-match suspension. The England captain will certainly miss the Carling Cup final next weekend.
With one eye on the Carling Cup final Ferguson rested both Edwin van der Sar and Michael Carrick, bringing Ben Foster and Anderson back into a much changed side.
But the match lasted barely a quarter for the returning Brazilian Anderson, forced off with a suspected knee ligament injury and replaced by Ji-Sung Park. It made little difference to United, who dominated possession in the opening exchanges with Darron Gibson and Paul Scholes lively in the heart of United’s midfield.
Not that the Hammers opted to stay on the defensive with Giullermo Franco shooting just wide for the Londoners and then Alessandro Diamanti forcing Foster to quickly back pedal as the England international kept out the deflected shot.
Rooney, forcing a last-ditch tackle from Jack Collison and then Gibson, twice, went close for the home side as United increased the pressure on Rob Green’s goal.
But the best of United’s play continued down the right and inevitably Valencia created the opening goal. Berbatov’s classy pass wide, volleyed across goal by the Ecuadorian and headed into the net by Rooney capped a wonderful United move.
Chances came for Rooney, on the volley, and then Park who forced an effort against the frame of the goal before the former-Evertonian headed home his second of the game. Once again Valencia provided the creative impetus on the right-wing with a delightfully chipped cross.
The rampant Scouser almost embarrassed Green, latching onto Valencia’s through ball and lofting a strike from the acutest of angles. Fortunately for the wandering England ‘keeper Julien Faubert stopped Rooney’s effort on the line.
There was still time to add a third and substitute Owen, who had spoken about his omission from the side in recent weeks, scored with his first touch. The diminutive hitman lofted over the advancing Green from Scholes’ weighted through-ball.
“I think there was a good attitude tonight and a real hunger for victory. West Ham have been doing very well recently so it was a good victory for us,” said Ferguson, who is likely to be deeply concerned with Ferdinand’s omission.
“He felt a twinge on his back this morning. We did a warm up at Carrington and he felt a twinge so we couldn’t risk it of course.”
But Ferguson will warm to the performances of United’s other key men at Old Trafford tonight. Rooney and Valencia will certainly start Sunday’s cup final along with the commanding Vidic. The trio were superb in a controlled United performance.
But the Scot will also have noted the mature performance of Gibson in the heart of United’s midfield who could yet force his way into the Carling Cup side.