Crunch time has arrived, admits Zola

West Ham 0 Manchester Utd 4
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The Independent Football

West Ham fans, more than most, know a team is never "too good to go down". Six years ago they were relegated with a side that included Paolo di Canio, David James, Jermain Defoe, Freddie Kanouté, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole and a young Glen Johnson. It was certainly a better team than the one wearing claret and blue now.

Thus the concern as they were swept away by Manchester United at Upton Park on Saturday, leaving them just four points clear of bottom-placed Portsmouth.

Granted the champions are tough opposition, but they did have six defenders out and lost two more during the game. The back four at the final whistle was Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra ("the smallest centre-half in the world", joked Sir Alex Ferguson) and Ryan Giggs. Yet Tomasz Kuszczak was only stretched twice all match.

At the other end, Rob Green was sick, literally and figuratively. Bereft of Matthew Upson and Carlton Cole, West Ham lacked spine and, for all of Scott Parker's running, it showed.

Fourteen months into management, Gianfranco Zola knows the pressure is on. West Ham had only lost one of the previous six, but they have also won just twice since the opening day and have conceded 10 goals in the last three matches. Zola's assistant, Steve Clarke, is renowned as a defensive coach, but the last clean sheet was in August.

Next up are Birmingham and Bolton away, before a demanding Christmas programme in which Portsmouth's visit is sandwiched by fixtures with Chelsea and Spurs.

"The next two games can really make a difference for us, starting on Saturday," said Zola. "We have to forget quickly about Manchester United because they are on a different level and right now we can't compete with them. Saturday is a big match and we need a very big performance.

"We are in a relegation fight. We have to accept that. We need to make a real effort to get out of this position straightaway. There are teams with 17 points in the middle of the table, so if you get a couple of wins you can move up quickly. And it is not only difficult for us to get points – it is hard for the other teams around us too. We need to find a bit more consistency and it would help to have fewer injuries. We have so many players out."

So many that Zola even joked about getting his boots back on, but the lengthy list of crocks, added to by Zavon Hines on Saturday, does seem odd given a much-touted aspect of the "West Ham project" – masterminded by chief executive Scott Duxbury and technical director Gianluca Nani – was a reduction in injuries aided by the arrival of Italian expertise. It doesn't seem to have worked out like that.

The club's financial health is also a matter of debate with the January transfer window likely to show, one way or the other, whether the Hammers are facing meltdown, as feared, or are now on an even keel after the Icelandic misadventure. The club's big assets are Cole, Upson and Green, but selling them would invite relegation.

"As far as I know we will not be under pressure to sell," said Zola, confirming this included the aforementioned trio. He added: "We will see what we are able to buy, and will be looking for something. We will see what happens."

Such is Manchester United's strength in depth that they were able to brush aside their own injury problems, which were exacerbated when Gary Neville and Wes Brown departed, the latter leaving them down to 10 men.

Paul Scholes volleyed them ahead at the close of a quiet first half they had just shaded, they then ran riot in the second. Darron Gibson, Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney scored as West Ham were cut apart.

"In the second half we played some brilliant stuff, created some great opportunities and managed to take them," said Rooney.

Chelsea's defeat a few hours later will have further improved the champions' mood with the points deficit down to two. "I think we're starting to hit our stride," said Gibson. "Hopefully we can kick on from here and keep winning."

West Ham United (4-4-2): Green (Kurucz, 72); Spector, Tomkins, Gabbidon, Ilunga; Collison, Kovac (Dyer, 66), Parker, Stanislas; Franco, Hines (Diamanti, h-t). Substitutes not used: Faubert, Da Costa, Nouble, Payne.

Manchester United (4-1-4-1): Kuszczak; Fletcher, Neville (Carrick, 33), Brown, Evra; Scholes; Valencia, Gibson (Berbatov, 66), Anderson, Giggs; Rooney (Owen, 72). Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Park, Nani, De Laet.

Referee: P Walton (Northants).

Booked: Manchester United Scholes.

Man of the match: Giggs.

Attendance: 34,980.