Ferguson keeps cool as winning post comes into United's view

West Ham 2 Manchester United 4
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The Independent Football

With two Champions League ties against Chelsea imminent, and in between them a Premier League game at home to Fulham due to finish at about the same time as his fancied horse What A Friend does in the Grand National, Sir Alex Ferguson is approaching some big fences. At the half-time interval in East London on Saturday, Manchester United seemed to have hit the first one with a crash and their manager, it was assumed, would have his whip out for a sharp reminder that were in danger of throwing away a record-breaking 19th League title.

Not so. "No, no, no. Calmness," was his reaction, according to a relieved Ryan Giggs. "The manager is obviously the one who believed in us and felt that we were playing some good stuff first half. He just said, 'concentrate a little bit more in the last third and we'll score goals'."

The more urgent message was that at 2-0 down, the next goal would decide the game. If Giggs was surprised to be sent out for the second half at full-back in order to accommodate Javier Hernandez's introduction, he set an immediate example with a run down the left and cross that almost brought the Mexican a goal, and from that moment United's day became better and better. By eventide not only had they scored four goals to complete a memorable victory, but both Arsenal and Chelsea had blown points and the championship was back in United's own hands and the bookmakers are far from alone in suggesting it will now stay there.

The only downside was the unwanted controversy that Wayne Rooney senselessly brought upon himself with a snarl and a curse for the television cameras after scoring a hat-trick in under quarter of an hour. His apology seems likely to preclude action by the Football Association under the umbrella of bringing the game into disrepute; and as Nemanja Vidic somehow escaped a red card, the damage done at a venue where United have often suffered in the past was only to one player's reputation rather than the team's championship prospects.

Giggs was therefore able to argue that Rooney's form, Saturday's result and the absence of any further injuries were all plus points to take into the eagerly awaited quarter-final against Chelsea, round one of which begins on Wednesday night. "You want all your players to be in good form, because it's such a tough place to go, Stamford Bridge, and Chelsea are playing well as well," he said. "You want to go into that game in good form, both personally and as a team."

"Wayne's been excellent the last six weeks, and his goals were just brilliant. Concentration, and a little bit of magic with the second goal. He's capable of doing that, winning games single-handedly."

Avram Grant is ideally placed to assess the repeat of the 2008 European final, when his Chelsea side were cruelly denied by United, but West Ham's manager considers he has enough to worry about with his current club, whose defeat thrust them back into the bottom three despite being their first in five games.

Commendably, he did not want to make too much of the referee's failure to send off Vidic, who received only a yellow card for a cynical foul on Demba Ba just before half-time and nothing for either a lunging foul on the same player eight minutes later or for conceding the second of two penalties that Mark Noble converted with nonchalance in the first 24 minutes.

Instead Grant concentrated on the qualities that will be required if West Ham are to emerge safely into daylight from the dark jungle in which eight clubs are attempting to savage each other. "The important thing is to play football but with football alone you cannot stay in the league," he said. "It will be a combination of strength, mentality and quality of football. I think we can do it."

On Saturday the dynamic midfield players who have done so well recently looked weary and were overrun for most of the game by the industry of Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick, the flair of Antonio Valencia and Giggs, and the finishing of Rooney, who passed a century of Premier League goals for the club with his first hat-trick since January last year.

Edwin van der Sar should be back in goal on Wednesday – not that West Ham gave Tomasz Kuszczak any real opportunity to demonstrate his ability – and Paul Scholes, Anderson and Jonny Evans, if not Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown, will be in contention.

"Big games keep coming but you live for games like these," Rooney said. "In some ways we have to say our season starts now." A little more self-discipline would help him keep the winning post in focus.

Scorers: West Ham Noble 10 pen, 24 pen Manches-ter United Rooney 64, 73, 78 pen, Hernandez 84 Substitutes: West Ham Piquionne 5 (Cole, 67), Keane (O'Neil, 83), Obinna (Noble, 83) Manchester United Hernandez 8 (Evra, h-t), Berbatov 7 (Park, 64), Nani (Rooney, 87).

Booked: West Ham Da Costa Man Utd Gibson, Vidic.

Man of the match Rooney Match rating 8/10.

Possession West Ham 37% Manchester United 63%.

Attempts on target West Ham 2 Manchester Utd 9

Referee L Mason (Lancashire) Attendance 34,546