Manchester United 1 West Ham United 0: Exile Ruud's winning return puts Ferguson on the spot

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Ruud Van Nistelrooy has had plenty to ponder during a month in which Manchester United have scaled the heights of their season with their celebrated marksman languishing in the depths of his Old Trafford career. Internazionale, Tottenham Hotspur or confront the test of character presented by Sir Alex Ferguson? The Dutch striker has kept his counsel throughout. He has kept his predatory instinct intact too, and as a consequence it is now his manager who faces the dilemma of the Dutchman's immediate future.

The 29-year-old was last night handed his first United start since their FA Cup exit at Anfield on 18 February and responded with the goal - his 149th in 213 appearances for the club - that vanquished a resurgent West Ham United and established a five-point gap over Liverpool in the pursuit of the second automatic spot in next season's Champions' League. It was the response Ferguson had expected from a seasoned professional bearing a grudge, and extended the team's Premiership sequence to seven successive victories despite a performance that bore the scars of too many unnecessary changes by the manager. It was also a defining contribution that will heighten speculation over Van Nistelrooy's future should he be sent back to the sidelines at The Reebok against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday. "I've got a very difficult decision to make," admitted Ferguson, "but that is what I am paid to do."

The United manager, however, chose a good night to remind his entire strikeforce of the need to sacrifice personal ambitions for the collective good. Three members of the club's treble-winning attack from 1999 were present at Old Trafford last night, Teddy Sheringham, in his role as a West Ham substitute just four days before his 40th birthday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Sydney FC's Dwight Yorke, who is training with his former club following the end of the Australian league season.

"Having four great strikers was a key factor in winning the treble, no question, and we can do that again if we get four strikers who compete for places and deliver at the right moments," Ferguson pointedly added.

Van Nistelrooy plundered the game's decisive moment from his only chance on the stroke of half-time, becoming the first player to reach 20 Premiership goals this season after both Gerard Pique, deputising for the hamstrung Gary Neville at right back, and Ji-Sung Park had produced an impressive build-up. The defender poached from Barcelona valiantly retrieved possession to enable the South Korean to ride Paul Konchesky's strong challenge and roll the ball back from the byline for the recalled striker to apply a trademark finish from five yards in front of a Premiership record crowd of 69,522, made possible by recent expansions to Old Trafford.

"Ruud is the best in Europe at that," said Ferguson. His counterpart, Alan Pardew, concurred: "I thought we handled him well but he had one chance and, like all great strikers, he took it. That is why they are paid huge sums."

The West Ham manager also bemoaned his side's failure to take a point from a game in which "United never got up a head of steam", yet, whilst correct, Ferguson's men were consistently the more dangerous of two confident teams and saw both Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney strike the woodwork either side of the interval.

Having called for consistency all season and only received it in the five games since Van Nistelrooy was dropped for Louis Saha in the Carling Cup final, the United manager felt the need to make five changes to the side that beat Birmingham City on Sunday. The performance inevitably suffered as a result, with United lacking the fluency and movement of recent weeks but safe in the knowledge that, with the Dutch international back, one chance is often enough.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Pique, R Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra (Silvestre, 78); Ronaldo (Saha, 87), Fletcher (Giggs, 69), O'Shea, Park; Van Nistelrooy, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Rossi.

West Ham United (4-4-2): Hislop; Scaloni (A Ferdinand, 67), Collins, Gabbidon, Konchesky; Benayoun, Reo-Coker, Mullins, Etherington (Zamora, 80); Ashton (Sheringham, 80), Harewood. Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Fletcher.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).