Hammers hope to burst Van der Sar's bubble

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The Independent Football

Few are the teams ever in a position to complete a hat-trick of home victories over Manchester United, but that happy place is where West Ham find themselves this afternoon. Frequently doing an impression of southern softies in the past when visiting Old Trafford, where they have lost 6-0 and 7-1 in recent years, the home players invariably manage to rouse themselves for a stirring effort when United are in town, and for the past two seasons Sir Alex Ferguson's side have been sent back up north with tails between legs.

Two years ago, a struggling team took heart and inspiration from Alan Curbishley's appointment as manager and won his first game in charge with a Nigel Reo-Coker goal. Twelve months later, United again arrived as League leaders but were knocked off pole position by two goals in the last quarter of an hour.

Soap opera plot or not, it was also the Eastenders who famously helped deprive United of Premier League titles in 1992 and 1995, without which the Monopolies Commission might have been called into action.

This time, against a team unbeaten in eight games, Ferguson is grateful for his side's extraordinary defensive record but is willing them to produce something more comfortable than the run of 1-0 wins unsuitable for any manager's heart. Delighted as he is with a whole washing line of clean sheets – it is 18 hours and 42 minutes since they conceded – their goal difference is less formidable than in previous seasons. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has 10 League goals and the midfield in particular has been less prolific than normal.

"Paul Scholes isn't going to get the goals he used to get," Ferguson said on Friday. "When he scored against Tottenham in the FA Cup, that was his first goal of the season and it was in January. He normally has six or seven by that time. That's just a result of the ageing process. He is 34 now and he is getting to the twilight years of his career, so you can't expect him to get from box to box all the time. We use him in far deeper positions now, more to control the games really.

"But Michael Carrick has it in him," he added, "although he has only got two this season. He made some great runs into the box last week, though, and that's what we want him to do."

One of those runs brought the penalty with which Ronaldo beat Everton, and another led to a clear but unpunished foul by Joleon Lescott. As a former West Ham pupil – one who earned plaudits for staying an extra year after they were relegated – and with Fabio Capello in the stands to watch him, Carrick will have every incentive today.

But it is the back line, slowly returning to full strength, that has attracted most attention, with Edwin van der Sar apparently unbeatable whoever plays in front of him. Sometimes at Old Trafford the opposition have been so passive as to tempt him into nodding off, but his concentration has not wavered. Under more pressure in away games, he has repelled everything.

An admiring Ferguson admitted the Dutchman should have arrived at the club sooner: "I tried to replace [Peter] Schmeichel and that was very difficult, but there were certain criteria to be a goalkeeper here which involved good experience, personality and also a good track record. We went for Fabien Barthez and he did well for a while, but he then had his own situations. We then went for Edwin. We really should have gone for him when Schmeichel left, but [former chairman] Martin Edwards had an agreement with Mark Bosnich at the time that took the wind out of our sails."

The champions will stride into Upton Park with the wind at their backs today, but in the knowledge that London's East End will be blowing more than bubbles at them.

Today's games

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal (1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)

Three successive draws and five goals in five games illustrate Arsenal's lack of creativity and finishing; hence a rare expensive signing in Andrey Arshavin. He may not feature but Spurs' prodigal son Robbie Keane will, admitting: "I'm as baffled as you" about his rejection by Liverpool.

West Ham United v Manchester United (4pm, Sky Sports 1)

West Ham are not the only London team to get pumped up for a visit by United, who have won only once in nine games in the capital. Their manager has highlighted next month, when they play Liverpool, as crucial, but today's is a significant hurdle to clear.

Steve Tongue

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