Football: Scholes cuts the strife for Ferguson

West Ham United 1 Manchester United 1; FA Carling Premiership: Manchester United see lead cut to nine points at Upton Park as Wenger's wannabes close the gap
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The Independent Online
A POINT gained - or two points lost? Only the final table will tell but the champions' point was certainly hard earned at Upton Park last night. It took them to the 60-point mark but Arsenal, with three games in hand, cut the Premiership leaders' advantage to nine with their victory at Wimbledon.

The results make Arsenal's visit to Old Trafford on Saturday morning more significant than anticipated a month ago, especially as Manchester United's squad is suddenly looking thin indeed.

Last night they were, as the opposing manager, Harry Redknapp, said of his own flock, "down to the bare bones" and grateful that Paul Scholes, without a goal in 13 matches, finally scored his first of 1998.

Manchester United have had a few problems in east London this decade, notably losing the championships of 1992 and 1995, and more looked in prospect when Trevor Sinclair put them behind after just six minutes. West Ham dominated the rest of the half so completely they could have gone into the break with victory assured but Manchester United, reshaped and reinvigorated by Alex Ferguson, were a different side in the second half. Scholes levelled after 66 minutes and, though West Ham could have won the game with two late chances, the visitors seemed the likely winners.

Ferguson refused to talk to the press afterwards, but Harry Redknapp said: "If Arsenal win up there it will make it very interesting, it will really open it up. We had a go at them and we should have finished them off in the first half."

In an attempt to find the penetration they have lacked since Ryan Giggs pulled his hamstring last month, United adopted a "Christmas Tree" formation with Brian McClair making a rare start in midfield. It did not work and, at half-time, Ferguson reverted to a more conventional shape, with Scholes pulled into central midfield and Ben Thornley attempting to provide width on the left. This he did, but his crossing was diabolical.

Had West Ham taken their chances, any United readjustment would have been academic. Within five minutes David May had made two vital interceptions, one from Andy Impey's cross, the other on the line from Samassi Abou after Schmeichel had spilled Frank Lampard's fierce drive.

From the resulting corner Eyal Berkovitch, presented with just (just!) Schmeichel to beat waited an age before shooting. It was long enough for Teddy Sheringham to block on the line, but Sinclair unerringly thumped in the rebound.

West Ham continued to threaten, with Schmeichel tipping a Steve Lomas shot over before pushing a Lampard shot against the post.

Two early 20-yard shots from Scholes, the second pushed past the post by Bernard Lama, gave notice of a new United in the second period. It survived further reorganisation when Nicky Butt limped off to be replaced by John Curtis and 11 minutes later Sheringham played a one-two with Beckham before finding Scholes, who fortuitously went past a tackle before neatly stabbing the ball in.

Both Scholes and Gary Neville could have won the game but so could have Abou (an astonishing miss), Berkovitch and Lampard at the other end. The final image was of David May racing into attack as Neville took an injury-time long throw. Make no mistake, the champions regarded this as a point lost.

West Ham United (3-5-2): Lama; Potts, Ferdinand, Pearce; Impey, Lampard, Lomas, Berkovitch, Lazaridis; Abou, Sinclair. Substitutes not used: Hodges, Coyne, Mean, Bishop, Forrest (gk).

Manchester United (4-3-2-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, May, Irwin; Beckham, Butt (Curtis, 55), McClair (Thornley, h-t); Scholes, Sheringham; Cole (Solskjaer, 77). Substitutes not used: Casper, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).