Like last weekend, the Reds played some sumptuous passing football early in the game only to be pegged back to 2-1 by hard-working, if sometimes over-physical opponents. Also like last weekend, United were victims of an outrageous refereeing decision that threatened to be a vital game-changer. Unlike last weekend, however, they weren’t in a mood to let ill-fortune deny them a crucial victory and for the last half hour ten-man United defended with courage and discipline to see the game out.
It all looked very routine early on. Once again, Di Maria and Herrera were a joy to watch, moving the ball around quickly and causing all sorts of problems for a West Ham defence who were often reduced to crude and clumsy challenges to remain in the contest. They couldn’t prevent the Reds taking the lead after only five minutes, however, when Rafael’s cross put in Rooney, who fired decisively home. United were two up mid-way through the second half and looking full value for their lead: this time, with Adrian caught out of position, it had seemed worth Falcao chancing a shot into the briefly unguarded net. Instead, the Colombian showed patience in feeding in Van Persie, who easily confounded both Reid and the West Ham keeper to score.
West Ham began to make a game of it, however, and Sakho gave them a lifeline when he followed in on an Enner Valencia header that came off the bar to head into an empty net. The game looked poised for an intriguing second half, but it was destroyed as a spectacle by what appeared a baffling red card for Rooney with around half an hour left. It was a cynical challenge that brought down Downing and it looked an inevitable yellow, but the Old Trafford crowd were stunned when referee Lee Mason immediately sent off the United captain. It was, in truth, the kind of challenge that West Ham were producing almost routinely throughout the game and there were at least two similar instances involving Hammers players later in the game, both of which met with a lesser punishment, as indeed was the case with Adrian when he handled outside the area in the closing stages.
United were forced to defend in numbers for the remainder of the game and they stuck to their task with an organisation and determination that were so badly lacking at Leicester. Patrick McNair, thrown into the fray due to the lack of fit right-sided defenders, did his part, deflecting a cross away from danger with a deft header under pressure.. When Nolan scored from close range late on it seemed as if the rear guard action had been for nothing but the linesman’s flag ruled it out for offside and Old Trafford breathed a collective sigh of relief.
While it’s fair to blame Lee Mason for ruining the game as a spectacle, it at least gave United the opportunity to demonstrate that they can dig deep if necessary and in the end the three points felt all the more welcome for the circumstances in which they were gained.