At the final whistle, Ryan Giggs was inundated with requests for his shirt from West Ham players all eager to get their hands on a piece of Premier League history. Giggs is 35 years old, the hair is greying at the temples, but there are still few more evocative sights in English football than when he jinks in from the touchline to score the goal that decides a match.
As Manchester United fans are keen to remind everyone, Ryan Giggs has "won it 10 times" – it being the Premier League title – and after, last night, there was a case for saying he is well on his way to his 11th. There are few more evocative sights in English football than Giggs jinking in from the left to score the winner in the midst of a tight title run-in unless, of course, you happen to be Rafael Benitez.
From his front room, the Liverpool manager had to endure watching a very average Manchester United side do just about enough to beat West Ham United yesterday to retake the lead at the top of the Premier League. But there was nothing average about Giggs' goal, a dribble followed by a right-foot shot that was a throwback to his teenage roadrunner days when he would leave full-backs spinning in his wake like autumn leaves. That is the beauty of Ferguson's team, even the 35-year-olds are chipping in with vital goals.
For all the ineffectiveness of Dimitar Berbatov and Cristiano Ronaldo, the champions could look back with pride on their 13th straight Premier League game without conceding a goal, a remarkable record in any circumstances. Having broken the English record two games previously, Edwin van der Sar has now broken the British record for the longest unbeaten sequence in goal, surpassing the one set by the Aberdeen goalkeeper Bobby Clark in the early 1970s.
This was not Manchester United's finest performance of the season, although it was difficult to remember a really clearly defined West Ham chance for all their good work in midfield, particularly the shift that was done by Scott Parker and Mark Noble. Between them West Ham held the champions at bay and you wondered where the winning goal might come from. Liverpool set the pace on Saturday in hectic fashion; United demonstrated that they could live with it in rather more assured style.
Gianfranco Zola had surpassed expectations on a number of levels with West Ham, although against Manchester United the bar is raised a little higher at Upton Park. For the last two seasons, Zola's embattled predecessor as manager, Alan Curbishley, won this fixture, against all the odds it has to be said, and he did so both times with teams in much worse shape than the one Zola fielded yesterday.
It was eight games unbeaten in all competitions for the Hammers before this defeat and three players in the England squad – Carlton Cole, Robert Green and Matthew Upson – which was announced to a roar of pride before the game. Less enthusiastic was the response when Fabio Capello's name was read out a couple of seconds later, but it is indicative of Zola's effect that the England manager was not just there to watch Manchester United's Englishmen.
Cole had an early opportunity to impress the England manager when he shoved away Rio Ferdinand as the United defender tried to ease him off the ball in the 12th minute. The West Ham striker was sufficiently forceful to push away Ferdinand, take on Mark Noble's through ball before letting himself down a bit with a weak attempt to chip Van der Sar.
That was the most artfully created chance of a first half in which West Ham had much the better of the game. Parker, one of those not selected by Capello in the England squad for Wednesday, was excellent, twice taking the ball from Ronaldo as he warmed up to dribble his way through West Ham. On the second occasion the winger responded with his can't-be-bothered, self-indulgent worst, sauntering back towards the halfway line after play had long since moved on.
Valon Behrami put Nemanja Vidic on his backside on one occasion, dribbling into the penalty area and freeing Cole, who could not get a decent shot off in time. Zola's side passed the ball coherently and they never allowed Michael Carrick – afforded a warm reception by the home side – and Paul Scholes to dominate the midfield.
It was Scholes who created his side's best chance, striking a corner from Giggs first time, a shot that was pushed goalwards by Ronaldo and tipped over by Green. Other than a header from Ronaldo that was well wide of Green's goal there was little else of significance offered up by Ferguson's team before the interval.
In fact, it was difficult to see from where Manchester United's goal would come, especially with Berbatov looking so uninterested and Ronaldo increasingly ineffectual. In the end it came from Giggs, who started the game on the right wing, switched to the left in the second half and, from there, scored one of those goals that are thought to be beyond 35-year-old footballers.
Giggs received the ball a long way out on the left side and from the moment Cole came hurtling towards him it was evident to the whole of Upton Park, apart from West Ham's No 12, what Giggs was likely to do. He dummied to go left, Cole went that way and Giggs cut in on his right foot. He swept past Parker and hit a right-foot shot through a crowded area and past Green's left side.
With two minutes left in the game, Ronaldo might have had a penalty when he cut in from the left and went past the trailing leg of David Di Michele, which clipped the winger on the very edge of the box. He might just have got the penalty on another day in another stadium – such as Old Trafford – but it was a borderline decision and, for all his posturing throughout the afternoon, it was not like Ronaldo deserved it.
Giggs, shattered at the end of the game, was inundated with requests for his shirt from West Ham players at the final whistle. If this is to be his 11th title then he might wish to keep it himself, as a reminder that the old magic is still there when required.
Goal: Giggs 0-1 (62).
West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Neill, Collins, Upson, Ilunga; Behrami (Tristan, 87), Noble (Savio, 77), Parker, Collison; Di Michele, Cole. Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Boa Morte, Kovac, Spector, Sears.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; R Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, O'Shea; Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Ronaldo; Berbatov, Tevez (Park, 86). Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Nani, Welbeck, F Da Silva, Fletcher, Eckersley.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: West Ham United Neill; Manchester United Vidic.
Man of the match: Giggs.
Attendance: 34,958.Reuse content