The Reds reclaimed top spot in the Premier League with an efficient display against West Ham. And though the match may not have been a classic, Ryan Giggs’ match-winning goal certainly was.
The Welsh winger had been yet to find the net in the league this season, but the 35-year-old has been refined to save all his experience and talent for a time when it matters most.
This was United’s fifth 1-0 away win this season, which you have to say is championship form, operating with a metronome beat that rings ominously for the Reds’ title rivals.
United, still missing Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra, and also without skipper Gary Neville, started the match with two games in hand on closest rivals Liverpool, who somewhat fortunately went a point ahead at the top of the league on Saturday when Fernando Torres snatched a last-gasp 3-2 win against Portsmouth.
Regaining top spot was clearly the priority, but it was never going to be an easy ride. Being the league’s form team, with an increasingly more potent attack and a record-breaking defence, the chances of achieving it appeared positive. But West Ham are themselves third in the form table with four wins and two draws from their last six league games.
United's players looked as bright as their white away shirts early on, freely passing through a 4-4-2 formation that regularly saw Cristiano Ronaldo on the left and Ryan Giggs on the right push high up the pitch. However, this is a fixture that never lacks bite, and West Ham were bristling with determination and fight, busily trying to dismantle United’s play. And they did a decent job of it.
The Reds’ record run of clean sheets, stretching back to 8 November, twice looked like coming to an abrupt end in the first half. After 11 minutes, Lucas Neill had West Ham’s first shot as the Reds failed to clear a corner. But the Australian’s low drive from 18 yards was well held by van der Sar. Seconds later the Dutchman had to have his wits about him when Carlton Cole, who had scored six in his last eight outings prior to this match, raced beyond Rio Ferdinand and tried to clip a shot in at the far post.
At the other end, Dimitar Berbatov thought he’d given United the lead when he poked a shot past West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green. But the linesman’s flag was rightly raised for offside. Green then had to be alert on the half-hour mark to deny an improvised Ronaldo attempt on goal. Giggs’ corner found Scholes unmarked on the edge of the area and his shot was going wide until Ronaldo’s delicate touch changed its course and Green had to turn the ball over the bar.
The half ended without any goals, and while United may have been slightly frustrated at one end of the pitch, at the other it heralded a British record for van der Sar for minutes without conceding a goal. But within three minutes of the restart, United’s keeper had to earn his stripes with a smart save from Neill’s curling, left-footed shot.
The Reds looked menacing in possession but seemed to be lacking penetration in the final third, and it is at these stages in games when the know-it-alls like Giggs and Paul Scholes step to the fore. United's two most experienced outfield West Ham 0 United 1
players finally found a breakthrough after an hour, Scholes’ perfectly executed pinpoint pass finding Giggs out wide on the left. Cutting inside, the Welshman evaded Cole’s wild lunge, shimmied past another Hammers defender into the box and curled a low, right-footed shot past Green. Vintage stuff from two vintage Reds.
It is Giggs’ first Premier league goal this season and maintains his record of having scored in every season since the Premier League’s inception in 1992.
West Ham still caused United problems. Cole’s shot from distance was narrowly wide, and he was denied at the front post by Ferdinand after Noble broke the offside trap to sneak in behind John O’Shea. But Giggs’ brilliance seemed to sap much of the energy from the West Ham players’ legs, and took the edge off their midfield's previously rabid determination.
Ronaldo could, and should, ave had a second-half penalty after being fouled by Neill just inside the box, but referee Phil Dowd must not have seen the incident properly as he incorrectly refused to point to the spot.
The match ended without any late drama, and while that was largely indicative of the match as a whole, unremarkable 1-0 wins are a cornerstone of championship successes. The run of clean sheets continues, as does United's unrelenting march forward in the title race.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
West Ham United [0 - 1] Manchester United
62' [0 - 1] R. Giggs
62' [0 - 1] R. Giggs