So often the savior in the Premier League, Robin van Persie replicated the trick in the FA Cup to keep Manchester United alive as his late strike earned a replay against West Ham following a 2-2 result at Upton Park on Saturday.
The visitors were heading for defeat ticking into injury time after two James Collins headers put West Ham in front following Tom Cleverley’s opener. But Van Persie came off the bench to strike his 20th goal of the season and take the tie back to Old Trafford.
It was tough on West Ham who had a chance moments earlier to seal their place in the fourth round against a Manchester United side that struggled to find their attacking rhythm that has been so in evident this season.
In a high-tempo opening, there was much to encourage as both sides created early chances.
In the rare absence of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes was influential at the base of the Manchester United midfield. It was a trademark pinpoint angled pass from the veteran that picked out the run from right back of Chirs Smalling early on, but his ball across the face of goal just evaded the lunge of Javier Hernandez.
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West Ham came close to a breakthrough too as they provided a portent of things to come by threatening their opponents’ defense in the air. On this occasion, Manchester United survived when Scholes headed Alou Diarra’s far post header off the line from a corner and then Nemanja Vidic was able to clear before Carlton Cole could head home.
Vidic showed himself capable of causing West Ham problems in the other box as he rose highest to head at goal but saw his effort blocked on the line by young full back Daniel Potts.
In one of their best moves of the match, Manchester United got the breakthrough midway through the opening period. Some quick one-touch passing got Hernandez bursting down the right and, though the Mexican’s cross was ahead of Welbeck, Cleverley arrived unmarked at the back post and stylishly side-footed the ball back across goal.
West Ham were unashamedly continuing to look for a quick aerial route into the opposition box and it was a tactic that paid dividends to bring them back on level terms.
Joe Cole made an immediate impact on his West Ham return as, given too much space by Scholes, he delivered a short cross onto the penalty spot and Collins got there ahead of Jonny Evans to power a header past David De Gea.
United had an opportunity to go into the break in front when Kagawa had an all too rare moment of quality as he held onto the bal long enough to feed through Welbeck who burst through and then cut back onto this right foot but shot too close to Jussi Jaaskelainen with Hernandez unmarked in the center.
Though Cleverley wasted an early half chance after the break, in the absence of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia, United lacked a coherent shape going forward and struggled for much of the second period to threaten Jaaskelainen’s goal. Welbeck was constantly coming inside to leave no width on the left, while on the right Rafael, pushed forward struggled to make any impact. That all left Kagawa, still struggling for fitness, crowded out in the middle.
At the other end, despite an impressive showing by Vidic, West Ham again showed the danger they pose in the air. Just moments after Carlton Cole had a header saved by De Gea, the home side took the lead with an almost exact replica of their opening strike.
Again no one closed down Joe Cole from a similar position 30 yards from goal and again he delivered an inviting ball this time to a position slightly further from goal. The more difficult position didn’t matter to Collins, who, in even more space this time, produced an even better header to send the ball searing into the corner with De Gea helpless.
Still struggling to make any impact offensively despite their possession, Manchester Untied boss Sir Alex Ferguson made the inevitable call for the cavalry with 22 minutes remaining as Van Persie and Valencia came off the bench.
Yet it was Wet Ham that created the next chance with just two minutes remaining. Matthew Taylor headed the ball back across goal and after Mark Noble failed to get a clean strike on the ball, Carlton Cole looked certain to score at the far post, but De Gea did just enough with his legs to prevent the ball going in.
When the third United substitute Ryan Giggs headed a glorious chance over from six yards, it looked like being West Ham’s day.
But the visitors produced the best moment of the encounter to grab a dramatic leveler. Giggs redeemed himself with an outstanding long cross-field pass onto the boot of Van Persie who controlled the ball exquisitely into his stride before stroking it past Jaaskelainen.
Just where United would be without their new Dutch signing is a question that Ferguson may not even wish to contemplate.