Careless United shaken by Suker

FA Premiership: Champions squander a two-goal lead as Di Canio and Cole inspire Hammers' fightback
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The Independent Online

When Harry meets Sir Alex, the result of their teams' endeavours is rarely anything but compelling. Here, yesterday, it was positively climactic as Ferguson's men contrived to relinquish a two-goal advantage and - as it transpired, League leadership - within a final five minutes crammed with so much activity it was wearying on spectators, let alone the players.

When Harry meets Sir Alex, the result of their teams' endeavours is rarely anything but compelling. Here, yesterday, it was positively climactic as Ferguson's men contrived to relinquish a two-goal advantage and - as it transpired, League leadership - within a final five minutes crammed with so much activity it was wearying on spectators, let alone the players.

By Manchester United's extraordinary standards, dropping two away points for the second time in four days is tantamount to gross dereliction of duty. Even Sir Alex Ferguson did not attempt to provide mitigation for his players afterwards, when he conceded grimly: "We got what we deserved. We took our foot off the gas, and we paid the price."

The United manager's disconsolate demeanour was undoubtedly reflected by Kevin Keegan, who learned last night that Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand, with groin and hip injuries respectively, will almost certainly withdraw from his England squad to face France.

Until those final dramatic few minutes, United had been intent on merely playing out time at a stadium which traditionally provides happy hunting grounds for Ferguson's braves.

A sublime first-half David Beckham free-kick, followed by another goal from Andy Cole soon after the break, had seemingly conquered even West Ham's renowned spirit. Yet, somehow, Harry Redknapp's team conjured a remarkable revival. The 18-year-old Joe Cole, given his first start of the season and responding with a display that his manager assessed as being "a bit like watching Gazza in his prime; he frightens defenders to death", was felled by the substitute Henning Berg on the corner of the area.

Paolo di Canio duly struck home the resulting penalty. No more than consolation, we surmised. Wrong. Three minutes later, the United rearguard was found wanting as Joe Cole and Di Canio combined, with the Italian's cross being deflected off Berg for the lurking Davor Suker at the far post to head the ball against the near post and across the line.

Even then, there was time for both Teddy Sheringham and Beckham to rattle Shaka Hislop's posts. Despite Ferguson's criticism of his team as a whole, it was certainly less than Beckham deserved on an afternoon when he had decorated Upton Park with a scintillating exhibition of his art. Beckham enjoyed a particularly raucous afternoon yesterday, having, in a magazine article this week, professed his pleasure at being regarded a gay icon. Yet, for all the sometimes curious observations of the Manchester United midfielder and his pop star wife and the celebrity they both enjoy, it rarely makes an impact on his ability to transform a game. He achieved it in midweek at Ipswich, with the most wicked of free-kicks, and yesterday repeated the feat.

When Igor Stimac felled Sheringham with a late challenge a few yards outside the area after five minutes, United could not have been more appreciative. Stimac, sent off here on Wednesday against Leicester, offered his apologies to the prone Sheringham, but they should have really been offered to his team-mates, as his unnecessary lunge had presented Beckham with the perfect opportunity to inflict early damage. He relishes such an invitation, and his free-kick arrowed into the top right-hand corner of Hislop's goal.

There was already an ominous feeling that United's traditional supremacy over the Londoners would be upheld. West Ham have a lamentable record against United in recent years. They have never defeated them in the Premiership and last season were humiliated home and away, 4-2 and 7-1.

However, the always bullish West Ham manager considers this "the best team we've had for years". But not when he is missing personnel of the calibre of Frank Lampard and the Frenchman Frédéric Kanuté. But such adversity at least gave the opportunity for his teenage protégés, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, to parade their much-vaunted talents against the country's best opposition. Joe Cole, all sleight of foot, splendid control and perceptive passing, was particularly effective just behind Di Canio and Suker.

A deft cross by Nigel Winterburn gave Suker the opportunity to profit when left unmarked, but when he had time and space, the striker nodded wide. Pictured in Superman costume on the front of the Hammers' magazine, Sukor looked like he was suffering from too close proximity to kryptonite on that occasion. Di Canio, too, was profligate when presented with an opportunity 35 yards out, and Fabien Barthez out of his goal, after a poor clearance by Mickaël Silvestre. And so it continued as Joe Cole headed wide from a fine Di Canio cross, and a Lomas drive was touched over by the French keeper.

Joe Cole began the second half as he had finished the first, in impudent mood. His trickery left United defenders toiling as he set up Di Canio only yards from goal, but the Italian was over-deliberate and allowed Berg, who replaced the injured Jaap Stam at half-time, to block the chance. From the resulting corner, Stimac's header was inches wide. You could not blame him for beating the ground in frustration.

Redknapp may have felt like doing the same seconds later, when a raking ball forward from Beckham found Ryan Giggs on the edge of the area. He knocked the ball on to the lurking Andy Cole, who somehow managed to prod the ball past the advancing Hislop.

United appeared to have the points secure, but Di Canio, Suker and Joe Cole are always liable to produce something special. West Ham remain bottom, but the Hammers' faithful wended their way home happy last night.

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