The Boleyn Ground has been a difficult venue for Manchester United; they had only won five of 13 prior Premier League fixtures and Sir Alex Ferguson has never forgotten the "obscene" effort which denied his team the 1995 title. Yesterday, however, was a stroll in the Upton Park.
For much of the game the champions' back four included midfielders Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick; by the end they were down to 10 men with Patrice Evra, at centre-half, the only defender, yet Tomasz Kuszczak was rarely troubled. At the other end, United scored four for the second successive away game.
At least Portsmouth got a goal back last week. An abject West Ham rarely looked like doing so. They are very much in the relegation scrap and by
the final whistle the banks of empty seats told their own story. "We didn't pose much threat, but they are the champions and we had a lot of young players, it wasn't easy," said Gianfranco Zola, Hammers' manager.
Ferguson's face was wreathed in smiles. "Four-nil is a good win away from home, good for our goal difference and good for confidence. We're very pleased," he said. He may struggle to field a recognizable back four in Wolfsburg in midweek but with qualification assured for the Champions League knock-out stages Aston Villa's visit to Old Trafford on Saturday will be the physios' target.
When Nemanja Vidic was ruled out with a cold even United's resources were stretched as Rio Ferdinand, John O'Shea, Johnny Evans, Owen Hargreaves and the Da Silva brothers were already absent. Ferguson moved Gary Neville to central defence and put Fletcher at right-back. Half-an-hour in this makeshift back four was further disrupted when Kuszczak collided with Neville and the captain was forced off. Carrick was introduced as centre-half. "We'll probably play him there on Wednesday, he's got the height and the composure and I thought he did very well," said Ferguson.
In the circumstances Zola had even more cause to rue the knee injury afflicting Carlton Cole. His absence left West Ham lightweight in attack and they failed to force a save from Kuszczak for nearly an hour. They should have been looking to isolate Fletcher or set Zavon Hines' pace against Neville but their only chance came courtesy of Ryan Giggs who passed across his goal to Hines. Giggs recovered to prevent Jack Collison turning in the cross-shot.
For a long time the champions were restricted to long-range efforts with Darron Gibson, scorer of a brace from distance against Spurs in midweek, striking the corner flag with one effort. However, if you give players of Manchester United's calibre enough chances they will score, as Paul Scholes showed in first-half injury time. Thrice West Ham failed to clear an attack and when Daniel Gabbidon's poor header fell to Scholes he chested the ball past Radoslav Kovac, then lashed in a volley Rob Green could only help into the roof of the net. It was a stunning goal, and an impressive performance, from a man who talked yesterday of retiring as he "was no longer making an impact".
"The first goal changed the game," said Zola. "We were defending quite well, we needed one more minute." Confirmation that the game was over came on the hour as Gibson drove in from 25 yards after Giggs and Wayne Rooney had sliced West Ham open. Ten minutes later Rooney and Anderson set up Antonio Valencia. A minute later a sweet passing move involving Scholes, Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Valencia ended with Rooney tapping in.
Wes Brown limped off in the closing minutes leaving the visitors a man short but it mattered not. Green had already departed having thrown up in his goal area. A bug was the cause, though it may have been his response to the ineptness in front of him.
Referee: Peter Walton
Man of the match: Giggs
Match rating: 7/10