The champions' victory returned them to the top of the table, if only briefly, and it is a position they would like to be in when they head for Brazil next month. "It would be psychologically good to get a lead at the top of the table going into this period," Ryan Giggs said afterwards, "as we don't know what will happen in Brazil."
His manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, took up the theme when he said: "Next month is going to be unusual, it is a step into the unknown. We have no idea what will happen but the temperatures we will play in will take something out of us."
Manchester United play Bradford at home and Sunderland away before they embark on what is currently scheduled to be a 27-day absence from the Premiership while they compete in the Fifa Club World Championship. Leeds will have played five times by then and Arsenal, their League opponents on 24 January, four times, so it was important not to drop any points on Saturday.
The champions' success was helped by West Ham's mental, physical and tactical condition. While the visitors, due to their disdain for domestic cup competitions, had been resting for 10 days, West Ham had played two gruelling cup ties in the previous week and had to deal with the shock of "Manny-gate", as the tale of Emmanuel Omoyinmi's ineligibility for last week's Worthington Cup quarter-final has been christened.
They also changed their formation, reverting to the 4-4-2 they occasionally use on their travels in an attempt to clip Manchester United's wings. Since they have taken only two points from their last seven Premiership away matches, and failed to score in any of them, it looked ill-advised from the start. So it proved as Giggs and David Beckham tore them apart.
While Roy Keane and Jaap Stam provide the backbone it is this pair who in many ways make the difference for United. As Giovanni Trapattoni said last month: "They provide that element of fantasy". The veteran coach of Fiorentina may have been indulging in a little bit of kidology when he added: "There are no players like Giggs and Beckham in Italian football", but there are not many anywhere who can match them on Saturday's form.
It would have helped West Ham if they had been able to use a couple of ringers at full-back - Lilian Thuram and Paolo Maldini come to mind. Instead an out-of-position Steve Lomas attempted to pin down Giggs while Scott Minto, making his first Premiership start since September, sought to restrict Beckham. It was an unequal struggle, especially as Beckham and Giggs roved constantly from their flanks, drifting inside with devastating effect.
Add a bad day at the office for Neil Ruddock, and it was a busy one for Shaka Hislop. A morning paper headline, suggesting he would maintain his friend Dwight Yorke's eight-match scoring drought, was asking for trouble and he duly paid for this hubris after just eight minutes.
It was a magnificent goal. Roy Keane played the ball out wide to the right where Beckham clipped a first-time running volley across the face of goal. With Ruddock hesitating Yorke headed in.
Four minutes later Giggs and Yorke combined delightfully for the Welshman to steer in the second. The champions' football during this period was exceptional. Their movement was so sharp, and their passing so slick, West Ham appeared static. It was, for their supporters of the spreading- waist generation, a disturbing preview of what they are likely to experience as players themselves on Saturday when their computer-literate children unwrap the Dreamcasts and ask dad for a game.
The third goal was more fortunate, Giggs rifling a rebound past the unsighted Hislop from 20 yards. A rout loomed but Paolo Di Canio, stabbing a volley under Raimond van der Gouw from Ruddock's knock-down, halted the slaughter.
Manchester United, with Giggs and Beckham bewitching, continued to shine but Hislop kept them at bay and, soon after the break, Di Canio turned the exhibition into a contest with a beautifully taken goal from Marc Keller's pass. Then, shortly after the hour, came the decisive minute. Di Canio again went clear but overdid the trickery and allowed Van der Gouw to save.
Twenty-seven seconds later he was on his knees and the ball in West Ham's net as Yorke converted Giggs' cross. The game over, Beckham was withdrawn with what was described as a hamstring strain but may have been a canny response to his growing irritation with the crowd's abuse. Not that this appeared to weaken his team. His replacement, Nicky Butt, marked his arrival with a superb pass from which Giggs just chipped over, then drilled in what would have been the fifth but for a harsh offside.
The absence, throughout, of Andy Cole with a rib injury was similarly brushed aside. "It was Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] and Coley last week, Dwight and Teddy [Sheringham] this; whoever plays up front we always look good," Giggs said. "All the players are doing well, we are flying."
This strength in depth will be tested over the next month when they will literally be flying once again. On the evidence of the season so far, the squad will meet the challenge.
Goals: Yorke (8) 0-1; Giggs (12) 0-2; Giggs (19) 0-3; Di Canio (23) 1-3; Di Canio (51) 2-3; Yorke (62) 2-4.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Hislop; Lomas, Ferdinand, Ruddock, Minto; Sinclair, Lampard, Foe, Keller; Di Canio, Wanchope. Substitutes not used: Kitson, Angus, Margas, Newton, Forrest (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Gouw; G Neville, Stam, Silvestre, Irwin (P Neville, h-t); Beckham (Butt, 77), Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Yorke, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Taibi (gk), Berg, Solskjaer.
Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).
Booking: West Ham: Di Canio.
Man of the match: Giggs.
Attendance: 36,037.Reuse content