West Ham United 0 Manchester United 1
Manchester United, by turn ridiculous, sublime and desperate, reduced Newcastle's lead in the Premiership to nine points last night, despite playing with 10 men for the final quarter of an hour.
Once Nicky Butt had been sent off for a foul on Julian Dicks, the visitors were reduced to basic measures to ensure only their second victory at Upton Park in 21 visits. Despite incurring six bookings, they were deserving winners, profiting from a ninth-minute goal by Eric Cantona which owed almost everything to the sustained creativity of Ryan Giggs.
Alex Ferguson, United's manager, described the decision to send off Butt as "very harsh". He said he would decide whether to ask the referee to change his mind about the sending-off after watching the incident on video, but added: "Nicky was unfortunate to go. Dicks was off balance but Butt got the ball OK."
The 19-year-old's rash challenge on Dicks came after the West Ham full- back had obliged Andy Cole to jump clear from an attempted tackle which was at best committed and at worst dangerous. Cole - who said that the referee had not seen the first challenge - reacted to Butt's dismissal with such indignation that he was booked and substituted almost immediately. Cantona - a reformed character? - was conspicuously cool throughout.
Harry Redknapp, West Ham's manager, dismissed criticism of Dicks's initial challenge. "It was nothing at all," he said. "Julian went in to win the ball, did not go over the top and didn't try to break anyone's leg. The referee gave nothing and it doesn't make it right that Butt came in late."
The obvious question for Ferguson - could Newcastle be caught? - received the obvious reply: "You never know." But Ferguson did hint that Newcastle will find life hard in March and April, whoever they play. Ferguson knows all about that - it was poor results at Upton Park which ruined his side's title chances last season and in 1992.
History appeared to be repeating itself as farce after just three minutes, when Ludek Miklosko's huge, wind-aided drop-kick found West Ham's front pair of Tony Cottee and Iain Dowie unmarked in United's area.
Cottee, recovering from the shock, volleyed the ball against the underside of the bar and it was scrambled for a corner which was cleared by Cantona. But Cantona then survived a big appeal for handball after appearing to employ a combination of hand and head.
United, however, recovered themselves ideally, and within six minutes they were ahead thanks to Giggs's inspired intervention. He was closely attended by Dicks as he received the ball inside his own half and drifted out to the right wing. But after flicking the ball to an apparently neutral piece of turf, he accelerated round the other side of his marker to claim it.
Beating the hapless Dicks once more with another change of direction, he exchanged passes with Cole before crossing to the far post. Lee Sharpe missed but Cantona did not, driving the ball majestically back over Miklosko's right shoulder and into the far corner of the net.
Cantona appeared to have been harshly penalised for handball when he set up Sharpe to head in after 27 minutes - but perhaps it was luck evening out.
The visitors' discipline began to slip after the break as Steve Bruce, Butt and Gary Neville were booked for fouls, and they needed a vital intervention by Dennis Irwin to prevent Ian Bishop converting a clear chance 20 minutes from time.
West Ham United (4-4-2); Miklosko; Brown, Rieper, Potts, Dicks; Williamson, Bishop, Moncur, Slater (Rowland, 31); Cottee, Dowie. Substitutes not used: Shilton (gk), Whyte.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, G Neville, P Neville; Giggs, Keane, Butt, Cantona, Sharpe; Cole (Beckham, 77). Substitutes not used: Parker, Scholes.
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).
Last night's results, page 23