United won with the minimum of fuss against West Ham, but this was still a performance very much to get excited about.
Cristiano Ronaldo struck both goals on the night he paraded his World Player of the Year award, while Dimitar Berbatov shone and Carlos Tevez, Nani, Anderson and substitute Wayne Rooney all showed glimpses of why this is one of the finest collections of players Sir Alex has ever had.
There were plenty of tricks, flicks, skills and thrills to provide warmth as Manchester’s winter chill made an early appearance.
Sir Alex handed Carlos Tevez his first start in a month against his old club, as Rooney dropped to the bench, while there was no place for birthday boy Edwin van der Sar – he turned 38 today. He was replaced by Tomasz Kuszczak and Rafael was favoured at right-back ahead of Gary Neville and Wes Brown.
It was important for United to get back to winning ways in the league after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Everton - the only blot on the copybook in October after wins over Blackburn Rovers (2-0), West Bromwich Albion (4-0) and Celtic (3-0).
United set out with the same attacking intent that has markedly changed the Reds’ goal return in the past month; the first chance came in the third minute when Nani squared the ball to Berbatov, but Hammers skipper Matthew Upson got enough on the ball to deflect the striker’s shot over the bar.
Nani went close himself two minutes later after a neat move from the Reds. Darren Fletcher’s lofted pass was nodded into the Portuguese winger’s path by Anderson, and Nani’s first-time, left-foot shot flew narrowly past the far upright.
Whether it had all come a little too easy to Sir Alex’s men in the opening exchanges, a short spell followed where red passes too frequently went astray, and players were caught in possession. But it didn’t last long.
Before kick-off Old Trafford paid tribute to Ronaldo as he collected his FIFPro World Player of the Year accolade on the pitch. So often last season Ronaldo provided the goals just when United needed them, so it was no surprise that he was the man to step forward. Nani was the provider, his centred ball across the penalty area finding his countryman free, and Ronny struck the ball left-footed past Robert Green.
The lively Nani almost provided a swift second when his turn on the edge of the area created space to shoot, but his side-footed effort again went narrowly wide. Previously Berbatov and Tevez both had mazy runs into the box that were halted just before either player could properly pull the trigger.
United’s relentless forward march soon paid dividends with the second goal arriving 15 minutes before the break. It was a goal of sublime creation. Anderson’s channelled pass set Berbatov on his way, but with the ball tight to the byline the Bulgarian had precious little space to operate in. No problem. He stopped the ball with his left foot, pirouetted and flicked the ball over James Collins’ challenge with his right. Having skipped away it was a matter of squaring the ball across the six yard box for Ronaldo to slide in and grab his second of the night.There was a palpable feeling of resignation among the away supporters as they ironically chanted “we’re going to win 3-2”, and it’s something that opposition teams have become accustomed to doing against the Reds: accepting that, at times, United are unplayable.
The second half started with the Reds comfortably in control; without any strong urgency to rack up a big score, but always displaying a desire to entertain, Berbatov in particular working through his full repertoire of languid yet awe-inspiring touches.
And if you think this article displays a lack of incident from Gianfranco Zola’s men, it’s simply that there was so little to report. It was all one-way traffic; exquisite football, at times carnival-like stuff, and West Ham had no response. Tellingly, a glance at the home bench showed Rooney and Ryan Giggs, among the Reds’ best performers in recent weeks, while Michael Carrick, Gary Neville, Ji-Sung Park, Ben Foster and John O’Shea provided further options perhaps only Chelsea can match.
Rooney and Carrick entered the fray with 20 minutes to go and West Ham hearts must have sank further still. Even Anderson was taking long-range shots from 30 yards.
Rooney’s first attempt was a delicate lob from just inside the area, which forced Green to tip the ball over the bar. A peppering of long-range efforts from United’s shaven-headed front man soon followed, which arrived seconds before West Ham’s first real clear-cut chance with 15 minutes to go. Substitute Luis Boa Morte was sent free from a ball over the top, but he fluffed his lines and Kuszczak made a comfortable save.
Of course, the finest football does not guarantee trophies, but if United can perform like this throughout the season, the top honours will certainly be attainable - and there will be plenty of great football to look forward to along the way.
Manchester United: Kuszczak; Rafael (Neville 82), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Fletcher (Carrick 68), Anderson, Nani (Rooney 68); Tevez, Berbatov.
Subs not used: Giggs, Foster, Park, O'Shea.
West Ham: Green; Faubert, Upson, Collins, Ilunga; Bowyer (Sears 68), Mullins, Behrami (Boa Morte 45), Etherington (Collison 46); Bellamy, Di Michele.
Subs not used: Lopez, Lstuvka, Davenport, Reid.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Manchester United [2 - 0] West Ham United
14' [1 - 0] C. Ronaldo
30' [2 - 0] C. Ronaldo
14' [1 - 0] C. Ronaldo
30' [2 - 0] C. Ronaldo