A superb second-half hat-trick from Wayne Rooney inspired Manchester United to comeback from two goals down to beat West Ham at Upton Park.
United started with a 4-5-1 formation and knocked the ball around nicely in the opening stages, having great territorial advantage over their opponents. After 10 minutes Thomas Hitzlsperger hit a long ball forward to relieve some pressure on West Ham, which fortuitously put Carlton Cole through on goal. The opportunity looked to have passed Cole by when he checked inside, but as he attempted to lob Evra the Frenchman handballed it and could have no complaints when a penalty was awarded.
Mark Noble dispatched the kick into the bottom corner of Tomasz Kuszczak’s goal to put West Ham 1-0 up. More United pressure followed without any real opening being created before another West Ham break led to a second penalty for the East-Londoners.
Carlton Cole’s nice stepovers saw him beat Nemanja Vidic who then brought down West Ham’s number nine. The foul was fractionally outside the box, but referee Lee Mason gave the spot-kick which was once again converted by Noble in the 25th minute.
United continued to press without ever breaking through the Hammers defence until the 30th minute when Park Ji-Sung had a shot saved well by Robert Green. While Park hit the shot with real conviction, it was straight at the in-form goalkeeper.
The central-midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Darron Gibson were frustrating; showing no enterprise or willingness to support the attack when the opportunities presented themselves and Wayne Rooney was having an off-day. As the clock ticked down to half-time United threw Chris Smalling forward and went man for man at the back, a decision that was almost very costly.
Another long-ball from the back saw Nemanja Vidic misjudge the bounce and bring down Demba Ba. The United captain received a booking and can count himself lucky it wasn’t a red because he was the last-man. The referee adjudged that the ball was running through to Kuszczak and therefore Vidic’s foul wasn’t denying a clear goal scoring opportunity.
While United could count themselves lucky to not be down to ten-men, they were unfortunate to be behind; the only touches of the ball Kuszczak had were when he was picking it out of the back of the net.
Javier Hernandez replaced Patrice Evra at half-time and Ryan Giggs went to left-back. The second-half was a continuation of the first in regard to United’s persistent pressure with no clear-cut chances being created. Fabio da Silva was excellent in his support of Antonio Valencia down the right and the between the two of them looked most likely to make something happen.
As it was, after a free-kick was awarded in the 65th minute and Wayne Rooney tucked it away expertly. Berbatov had replaced Park in the break in play before the kick was taken. It was the first goal United have scored from a direct free-kick since Ryan Giggs did so against Portsmouth in November 2009.
From then on United’s equaliser looked inevitable and a good ball by Fabio was brilliantly controlled and then finished by Rooney with 17 minutes left. Javier Hernandez made a great run in the build up that took a defender out of the play and gave Rooney the space to utilise.
United were relentless and another fantastic run by Fabio saw him get into the box and earn a penalty when his cut back was handled by Matthew Upson. The decision has been described as harsh in some quarters, but Upson’s arm was away from his body and intentional or not – as with Patrice Evra’s, a handball is foul play and awarding the penalty was the correct decision. Rooney confidently placed the ball into the bottom corner of the goal to complete his hat-trick and the turnaround.
Berbatov then began to run the show and straight from the kick-off could’ve made it four when he went through after a divine touch to break free of the West Ham defence, he unselfishly chose to pass it to Hernandez but it was cut out by an excellent block.
He then teed up Darron Gibson on the edge of the box, but the Irishman blazed the effort high over the bar. Third time was to prove lucky for the Bulgarian; after holding the ball up he played in Ryan Giggs, whose shot was deflected into the path of Javier Hernandez who tapped it in to complete the scoring.
It was the kind of performance supporters have been craving from United, done the United way and ahead of Arsenal’s game against Blackburn, The Red Devils moved eight points clear at the top of the table having played two games more than their closest challengers.
They made it hard for themselves, but isn’t that what makes being a United fan great?
The starting line-up
29. Kuszczak 6; 20. Fabio 9, 12. Smalling 7, 15. Vidic 5, 3. Evra 5(Hernandez 45 7); 16. Carrick 6, 28. Gibson 5, 25. Valencia 8, 13. Park 7(Berbatov 64 8), 11. Giggs 7; 10. Rooney 9(Nani 87)
Referee: Lee Mason