It was for once true grit rather than genuine class that carried them through, but through a serious test Manchester United came yesterday lunchtime before heading back up north defying potential rivals to do their worst.
Although Arsenal and Chelsea must have been rubbing their hands after seeing the half-time score, they would have been less confident of the outcome had they been watching the game, or seen statistics like the corner count, which at that stage read 11-0 in United's favour. By the final whistle it was 16-0 and, crucially,West Ham's 2-0 lead had been transformed into something more accurately reflecting the football. The visitors still left it late, trailing as they did until the final 17 minutes. Then Wayne Rooney completed his first hat-trick for 15 months to extendthe lead at the top of the table before Arsenal's game, and drop West Ham back into the bottom three.
Of course, this being the Premier League, there were controversies in a game of three penalties, a burst of obscene language from Rooney – for which he later apologised – and a potential red card for United's captain Nemanja Vidic. With Chris Smalling prone to error alongside him, Vidic resorted to desperate measures in conceding the second penalty and holding back Demba Ba when he appeared to be the last defender. There was only one yellow card for those two offences, and none when Vidic clattered Ba again early in the second half.
"He maybe got a lucky break," Sir Alex Ferguson admitted, while insisting that the penalty awarded "was outside the box". If there was partisanship in that assessment he was accurate both in admitting, "at 2-0 we were under the cosh" and in praise of his team's traditional desire to attack and keep going. "It was a real championship performance," he concluded.
In the end that proved to be the case, but earlier on the defending was anything but the stuff of title winners, which must give heart to Chelsea for the Champions' League quarter-final. Patrice Evra conceded the first penalty for handling Carlton Cole's attempted cross and Vidic the second, both of them expertly put away by Mark Noble. Yet even then, Robert Green made the two best saves of the half, from Smalling's early header and Park Ji-Sung's drive from 10 yards.
Ferguson, watching from the front row of the directors' box, was quicklydown to the dressing-room – domestic bans do not apply there – telling Javier Hernandez to get stripped, Ryan Giggs to move to left-back and the rest of the team to keep playing and score the next goal. Fortunately Giggs was still able to start several of the attacks that now wore West Ham down.
Twenty minutes into the second half, Hernandez was fouled by Noble and Rooney curled the free-kick round the wall and inside the near post.
That was his 99th Premier League goal for the club, and the century soon followed, with a deft touch from Antonio Valencia's pass before hitting the equaliser past Green.
When it came to taking a penalty for his hat-trick, Rooney was aware of the goalkeeper having faced many of his kicks in training for England, but he scored, before screaming an obscenity at a television camera. That was not clever at a time when the behaviour of players and managers are under the spotlight. The Football Association nevertheless indicated last night he was unlikely to be charged.
The hat-trick had come in 14 devastating minutes and West Ham were in ruins. Darron Gibson should have scored from Dimitar Berbatov's pass, and Hernandez converted Giggs's low cross. The home side's willing midfield workers had simply run out of legs. "It was too easy for United to control the game in the second half," Avram Grant conceded, while claiming: "There were a lot of positive things." Now he has seven games to keep West Ham up, with the visits of Aston Villa, Blackburn and, on the final day, Sunderland likely to prove decisive one way or the other.
Referee: Lee Mason
Man of the match: Rooney
Match rating: 9/10
Comeback kings 2010-11
13 November: Aston Villa 2-2 Man U
Goals from Ashley Young and Marc Albrighton appear to have given Villa three points but Federico Macheda drills home late on and Nemanja Vidic then heads in to earn Sir Alex Ferguson's side a point.
25 January: Blackpool 2-3 Man U
The terrific Tangerines lead 2-0 with just 18 minutes left but two in two minutes – from Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez – bring United level before Berbatov breaks Blackpool hearts in the 89th minute.
Yesterday: West Ham 2-4 Man U
A brace of penalties from Mark Noble puts the Hammers 2-0 up at half-time, but an inspired Wayne Rooney changes the game with a 14-minute hat-trick before Hernandez adds a fourth.