Manchester Utd 4 West Ham Utd 1: Ronaldo puts United on brink

Ferguson's 10 men close in on title as Portuguese star takes season's tally to 40 in another Hammers horror show
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The Independent Football

Chelsea conspiracy theorists may believe what they will. There was never any chance yesterday of West Ham United, with nothing to play for and a dozen players injured, pulling off one of their habitual upsets against a Manchester United side two wins from the title. Boys against champions hardly covered it, even when the latter had Nani rightly sent off after cruising into a 3-1 lead in half an hour.

The most disappointed man at Old Trafford was probably the Footballer of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, who, after scoring twice for a total of 40 this season, was substituted just after the hour when he must have fancied filling his insatiable shooting boots.

So, as expected, United will win the League for the 17th time if they win a week today away to Wigan, who are now safe, and will not need to do so if Chelsea fail at Newcastle tomorrow. Nani will be absent and so it seems will Wayne Rooney, who is in serious danger of missing the Champions' League final if he does indeed have a hernia.

In his absence here Ronaldo played through the middle again, alongside Carlos Tevez – given a rapturous reception by West Ham supporters – and to much better effect than against Barcelona in midweek. But neither Lucas Neill nor the 19 year-old James Tomkins are exactly Carles Puyol.

Among the London side's missing dozen were six central defenders, including Anton Ferdinand and Matthew Upson, whose late headed goals beat United at Upton Park in December. Much had been made of West Ham's record in having won their last three games against United, but those were all huge occasions for them, including Alan Curbishley's first match as manager and the one that saved them from relegation last season. This time, playing to maintain 10th place, which they have occupied like a comfortable old armchair since Boxing Day, did not demand any such effort. Nor did most of the team offer much.

Curbishley declined to face any flak after the match, sending his assistant Mervyn Day to answer for the team's feeble performance. "If you go into our dressing-room, the players are shattered," Day said. "They've worked their socks off, though there was some poor defending."

That began as early as the third minute, when Ronaldo moved out wide, where he does his best work. Neill, going with him, slipped and allowed him to cut in and hit a shot that took a slight deflection off George McCartney. That was Ronaldo's 29th League goal and his 30th arrived midway through the half with a deft twist of the thigh to meet Owen Hargreaves' centre.

Two minutes later Tevez veered inside and hit a screaming drive from 30 yards past the unprotected Robert Green. Just as a white flag might have been expected from the visitors' dug-out, they scored. Wes Brown headed Bobby Zamora's chip into the air and Dean Ashton hit an acrobatic overhead kick that would prove one of only two enjoyable moments for the travelling support. The other occurred shortly after with the red card for Nani, tangling with Neill off the ball and stupidly sticking his head in the abrasive Australian's face. It is something many have been tempted to do down the years, but Sir Alex Ferguson had no sympathy, condemning his player's "immaturity".

West Ham even contrived to lose the second half against 10 men. In the 59th minute Michael Carrick moved forward unchallenged from his sentry position in front of the back four and Neill advanced only far enough to help the ball on its way past Green.

For all the visitors' weaknesses on the day, there is enough essential integrity in English football for it not to matter that United's final two matches were against two of Ferguson's greatest admirers in Curbishley and Wigan's Steve Bruce. In any case, it will be the players who decide the fate of the title. If Newcastle's do get the better of Chelsea's tomorrow, it will be the London side's first League defeat of 2008, and there should be admiration for the way they have kept the pressure on United. Losing out would also give them even greater incentive to overcome their rivals in the Champions' League final and deny them a double just like last season. Either way, greater respect is due to Avram Grant than he has received from most quarters, including Chelsea's own supporters.

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