While Manchester United have increasingly relied on the goals of Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez to get them out of some tricky situations this season, it was – finally – Wayne Rooney’s turn, as he hit three deadly strikes against a strong West Ham side in a 4-2 comeback victory.
With recent question marks hanging over the fitness regime at Old Trafford, Ferguson and his physios will feel vindicated by the strong fightback, and by Rooney’s stunning performance. The 2010/11 season has been a long and arduous one for the striker, and has has at times looked frustrated and short of form.
However, at Upton Park, he proved that while United continue to struggle with a weak midfield and defensive injuries, he may just have found his form at the right time as United gear up for an improbable assault on a trio of trophies.
West Ham started strongly, and were 2-0 up in 25 minutes thanks to two well-struck penalties from Mark Noble. The talk before the game was of how youngsters Chris Smalling and Fabio would cope in the absence of the likes of Rio Ferdinand and John O’Shea, but it was the experienced performers – Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – who appeared to wilt under the spotlight, each giving away foolish penalties.
Vidic could also have easily been sent off for a tussle with Carlton Cole in the first half, with the Serbian appearing to be having one of his off days. Cole proved to be a tricky presence for United all game, and while he didn’t trouble Tomasz Kuszczak as such, on another day his work rate alone might have meant three points for his embattled side.
The Hammers worked extremely hard in the first half, with Scott Parker and Manuel Da Costa impressing in particular, and while United racked up corners and chances, there appeared to be no way into the game while keeping with the 4-5-1 formation with Rooney as a lone striker. In a seemingly strange move, the disappointing Evra was taken off at half time to be replaced with the Mexican Hernandez, with Ryan Giggs moving to left back.
Whatever Ferguson said at half-time did the trick, as United began to attack with more purpose, with Rooney regaining his confidence and control. The introduction of Berbatov also improved United’s attacking options, at it began to look like a case of when, and not if, United would take control.
United’s No 10 dispatched a sumptuous free kick with 25 minutes to go, and added a second eight minutes later with a good touch and a confident finish. West Ham’s players visibly tired as the half wore on, with United’s comeback looking eerily reminiscent of their win at Blackpool; a strong performance from the supposedly ‘weaker’ team in the first half being forgotten as United rampaged in the second.
Although United’s penalty was somewhat fortuitous, the two previous penalties meant that Lee Mason had little option but to award a spot kick, which Rooney tucked away with ease. Hernandez added a fourth with six minutes remaining, and his natural striking instincts are shown by the fact that he now has 11 goals from 15 shots on target in the league.
United can go into their Champions League clash with Chelsea on Wednesday in high spirits, while West Ham will be hoping to take some positives from the game as they aim to hold on to their Premier League place.