Van Persie rescues point for lacklustre United
West Ham’s physical approach ruffles Ferguson’s side at Upton Park
West Ham 2 Manchester United 2: For Manchester United, another game ticked off. Alex Ferguson's men twice had to come from behind but ultimately this is the kind of resilience that is taking them to their 20th league championship and, in that context, they will probably not care too much that there were only flashes when they were at their best.
They had finished the match on top but it needed a 77th-minute equaliser from Robin van Persie, fortunate not to be given as offside, to prevent them losing for the second time in three matches after the brilliant turn and strike from Mohamed Diamé that had put West Ham ahead for the second time.
Antonio Valencia's first goal of the season had ensured Ferguson's team went into half-time level, Ricardo Vaz Te having opened the scoring after 17 minutes, but it was only in the final exchanges that West Ham were subjected to some prolonged pressure. For the most part, they had played like a side that knew their lead at the top of the league was virtually unassailable.
Perhaps that explained why there was such an end-of-season feel to the way they started the match. The tempo was unusually slow for a team going for the title and Ferguson was out of his seat, imploring more from his players, even before West Ham went from one end to the other to open the scoring.
Vaz Te's goal stemmed from Wayne Rooney losing the ball on the edge of West Ham's penalty area. From the moment that happened, the visitors looked vulnerable. Diamé carried the ball forward then played it to the left for Matt Jarvis. Rio Ferdinand was turned far too easily for a player of his reputation and, when the cross was chipped up to the far post, Andy Carroll was always going to have the height advantage over Patrice Evra. Vaz Te had anticipated that Carroll's effort might come his way and applied the decisive touch with a stooping header inside the six-yard area.
It was a fine breakaway goal and Carroll's part should not be understated. The striker was a difficult opponent, primarily in the air, but also demonstrating attributes that are not always associated with a player of his size. He gave West Ham a robust presence at the spearhead of their attack and Ferguson was entitled to be aggrieved about the steamroller of a challenge that poleaxed David de Gea just before half-time.
Fortunately for the league leaders, De Gea is made of stronger stuff these days. It was, nonetheless, difficult to think the young goalkeeper has taken a heavier impact even going back to those periods when opposition teams would routinely try to rough him up.
Ferguson, that fierce protector of his own, continued his protests at half-time and had to be talked out of waiting for the referee, Lee Probert. Carroll was subsequently booked five minutes into the second half for a much more innocuous challenge on the Spaniard.
That apart, Carroll was prominently involved for the right reasons, frequently dropping back into midfield or appearing out wide to give his side an outlet. The striker played as if acutely aware that the England manager, Roy Hodgson, was in the crowd. West Ham based a lot of their play around him and, at times, their opponents found it a difficult tactic.
Ferguson's men endured a disappointing opening half an hour, struggling for cohesion in attacking areas. Yet their equaliser was classy in its creation. Van Persie's pass sent Shinji Kagawa running through the inside-left channel. Winston Reid dived in far too impulsively and Kagawa expertly dropped his shoulder, turned to the byline and then played the ball across the six-yard area to precisely where Valencia wanted it. The pass was enough to take out three opponents in one, including the goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen. From two yards, Valencia could hardly miss.
The second half began with Rooney playing a lovely, diagonal pass into Van Persie, with Phil Jones just unable to turn in the knockdown. Yet Rooney will not reflect on this night with any fondness. After 55 minutes, Vaz Te found himself pinned in by the right corner flag. His dragback played the ball to Guy Demel who immediately played another short pass to Diamé. Collecting the ball with his back to goal, Diamé's turn to spin away from Rooney was wonderful in its own right. The curling left-foot shot he struck with equal measures of power and precision made it one of the outstanding moments Upton Park has witnessed this season.
Rooney was substituted after 71 minutes and Ryan Giggs's introduction gave United a new sense of control. Their equaliser, however, was fortunate. Kagawa's shot flicked off James Collins and ricocheted off one post to the other before Van Persie, with the linesman keeping his flag down, put away a finish that was probably harder than he made it look.