The third round of the F.A. cup provided Manchester United with a difficult trip away at Upton Park to face West Ham United. Man United players and fans alike had last season’s 4-0 thrashing at the hands of West Ham fresh in the memory bank, with Carlton Cole among others that day giving Man United’s defence a torrid time.
This time around West Ham put out their strongest side available, featuring a second eagerly-anticipated debut for Joe Cole, while Man United also fielded a strong side, albeit with £24 million man Robin van Persie (or “RVP” as he is affectionately known amongst the Old Trafford faithful) on the bench. Man United’s well publicised weakness this season has been defending against physical teams, and particularly against teams who put the ball into the box often - as is West Ham’s style under Sam Allardyce - so it was anticipated to be a well-matched F.A. cup tie.
The start of the game provided chances at both ends from corners, as Paul Scholes unconvincingly sliced the ball off the line from a header, while young Daniel Potts also cleared off the line for West Ham at the other end.
After the opening few minutes settled down, Man United enjoyed long periods of possession with an evergreen Paul Scholes dictating the game, and got the goal their dominance had deserved with their first real chance of note from open play. A slick move culminated in Javier Hernandez sliding in a low cross which was finished with precision by Tom Cleverley on the edge of the area. West Ham did not allow their heads to drop – in fact the goal conceded appeared to galvanise the players, with Alou Diarra and Jack Collison working hard to get a foothold in the match. Carlton Cole was keeping the Man United defence busy in his bustling style, and West Ham got the equaliser their efforts deserved when the returning prodigal son Joe Cole was given too much time and space to cut inside and whip a delicious cross onto the head of James Collins, who made no mistake with the finish. West Ham were further encouraged by the goal and continued to exert pressure on the leaky Man United defence, with Kevin Nolan becoming more influential behind the big Cole as the half wore on.
The referee’s whistle for half time came as a relief to the visitors, who many inside Upton Park expected to regain control of the match after the break. The opposite was true however with West Ham really sensing an upset, Diarra in particular tore into the tackles, Kevin Nolan got a lot tighter to Scholes, Carlton Cole being a persistent threat and his namesake Joe switching flanks with Ricardo Vaz Te to good effect. The second goal came as no surprise and was a carbon-copy of West Ham’s first - Joe Cole again cutting inside and finding the head of James Collins, who powered the ball into the corner. David De Gea was visibly aghast at how easy the goal had been conceded – once again Collins was unmarked inside the centre of the penalty area. West Ham were in complete control, so Sir Alex Ferguson made changes with 20 minutes to go – Scholes (on a booking) was withdrawn for Antonio Valencia, with Robin van Persie coming on for the quiet Javier Hernandez. The crowd inhaled nervously; as they appreciated the striker coming on for the visitors was in the form of his life. If the West Ham players were also apprehensive of the threat coming on, they responded perfectly, continuing to press Man United back with Carlton Cole causing Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans all kinds of problems. Vidic in particular will feel that his match-fitness was put to the test with the combative target-man up front for the home side. The hammers so nearly scored a third to kill off the game, when another substitute Matt Taylor (on for the excellent Joe Cole) allowed the ball to squirm through his legs, with Carlton Cole unfortunately unable to turn in the loose ball which came off his shin and rolled just wide of the post in an unconvincing challenge from David De Gea.
The visitors finally created a half chance in the second half a few minutes before the 90 was up, when Ryan Giggs nodded over an inviting Rafael cross. Just as West Ham fans were convinced of a victory, 4 minutes of ‘Fergie-time’ was announced; from which Ryan Giggs promptly sent over a sublime 55 yard-pass on the half-volley onto the left toe of RVP. The striker took one touch to bring the ball down, one to get the ball from under his feet, and provided the relieved away fans with an ice-cold finish of the right foot. The way the travelling fans celebrated and the atmosphere in the ground told you everything you needed to know about the game, the league leaders were relieved to have escaped with anything from the game. A truly world-class goal had saved them from deservedly crashing out of the third round, and kept them in the hat for the fourth round draw.
West Ham will feel frustrated for not seeing the game out, however ‘Big Sam’ and the home fans have plenty of positives to draw on. Carlton Cole troubled the opponent’s defence throughout, while an inspirational second-homecoming from Joe Cole lifted the crowd and his team-mates, and a solid top class debut from Daniel Potts was a further comfort for Big Sam and his men. Man United were bullied, particularly in the second half, and one has to wonder how many times RVP can dig them out of the holes in their defence. Once again, he proved he is worth every-penny to the league leaders.987998