The finale to Manchester United's season is not turning into the serene victory tour that they might have hoped it would be with that once mighty lead of 18 points, rather they are meeting pockets of resistance everywhere. But no-one expects anything other than one outcome and it could yet be over by the end of the month.
They gave away another two points to Manchester City, 1-0 winners at home to Wigan, which means their lead is now down to 13 points with the second-placed team having six games left to play. Yet having trailed West Ham twice at Upton Park in a game that finally ignited in the second half, this felt like a decent result in what has always proved a truculent outpost in the empire.
On another night, in another season, perhaps Manchester United would have come from 2-1 down, when Mohamed Diame scored in the 55th minute and won the game in the final throws rather than just secure a draw. The difference this year is that there is not the necessity to throw everything after the victory that there has been in other, more dramatic conclusions to closely-run seasons.
If City drop points Sir Alex Ferguson's team could potentially still win the title at the Emirates a week on Sunday, a chastening possibility for all those who will gather there to tell Robin van Persie exactly what they think of him.
In the meantime, it was Van Persie's equaliser that earned a point for the away side, a goal that should have been ruled out for offside, the position of the United striker when Shinji Kagawa's shot was originally struck. It came off both posts and was tucked away by Van Persie for his 25th goal of the season in all competitions, a decision criticised bitterly by the West Ham manager, Sam Allardyce.
Ferguson had his own complaints too, most notably his claim that Andy Carroll should have been sent off for flattening David de Gea as he came for a corner at the end of the first half. In Carroll's defence he appeared to be helped on his way by a shove from Nemanja Vidic. Nevertheless, the Spanish goalkeeper did look momentarily like an innocent furry creature who had wondered innocently into the path of a hurtling juggernaut.
To De Gea's credit he picked himself up and got on with it, having felt the full force of Carroll's considerable frame. Early in the second half he found himself bullied again by Kevin Nolan and Carroll. Allardyce later admitted that at corners he had instructed his captain, as well as Ricardo Vaz Te and Winston Reid, to stand around the goalkeeper in order to raise the “pressure”.
In spite of that moment, in which Carroll may not have been entirely to blame, the West Ham centre-forward had a good game, albeit one which was lacking a goal yet again. He walked off the pitch at the end listening to Vidic complaining about his use of the elbow, although the defender may wish to examine his own record in that department first.
It was not the mood at the start of the game when, on a warm spring evening, east London was becalmed. If ever it felt that the Premier League season was petering out then it was the opening stages of the night when a fixture that has generated some serious animosity in its recent past felt like a dead rubber.
Carroll eventually raised the tempo and it was his shot that brushed a post in the fifth minute after he worked space in the box, with Antonio Valencia in particular getting a foot out the way to make sure he did not foul.
Ferguson picked Michael Carrick and Phil Jones as his two defensive midfielders and there was not a surfeit of creativity from that area of the pitch. You can always tell the evening is passing slowly when Wayne Rooney drops deep to pick up the ball as he did late in the first half.
As for West Ham they broke away to score a wonderfully worked goal in the 17th minute that unfolded quite unexpectedly. Rooney lost possession on the edge of the West Ham area and Mohamed Diamé carried the ball forward before moving it out left to Matt Jarvis. His smart change of pace left Rio Ferdinand behind and the cross to the back post was headed down by Carroll. Vaz Te met it with a second header to finish the job.
It was a nice piece of work and it took United more than 10 minutes to respond. The architect of the equaliser was Kagawa who, given the ball by Van Persie, dribbled wonderfully past Reid and cut the ball back for Valencia to score his first league goal of the season.
In that opening 15 minutes of the second half, having gone after De Gea again, Carroll looked at his best. He hit a dipping volley just over the bar having run onto it with the kind of aggression that characterises the best parts of his game.
The second West Ham goal, however, came from that intriguing midfield talent Diamé who scores few goals but picks high-ranking opposition to score them against. His other two of the season have come against Arsenal and Chelsea and his third was a superb left-footed shot hit from the right having turned away from Rooney to make the space.
Rooney's night ended when Ferguson replaced him with Ryan Giggs for the final push with just less than 20 minutes left. A shot from Rooney had been cleared off the line from Gary O'Neil after Jussi Jaaskelainen had let it slip through. Otherwise he had seen little of the meaningful action.
The West Ham goalkeeper saved well from Van Persie's header on 68 minutes and he was unlucky with the second equaliser. Kagawa's shot from the edge of the area brushed James Collins and hit both posts. Van Persie, in an offside position when the ball was struck, tidied up neatly at the post and the away side were level, which was as much as United deserved.
Man of the match Carroll.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee L Probert (South Gloucestershire).
Red party: When can United win the title?
Manchester United require just six points from their remaining five games to claim a 20th top-flight crown. Victory over Aston Villa on Monday will be enough if City lose at Spurs the previous afternoon, otherwise Sir Alex Ferguson's side could reclaim the crown with a win at Arsenal on Sunday week.Reuse content