A narrow, hard-fought but potentially significant win. Manchester United took a step closer to securing a place in next season’s Champions League with this victory over one of the surprise contenders in the Premier League’s top-four race, as West Ham were undone by an unfortunate Craig Dawson own goal.
David Moyes’ long wait for three points at Old Trafford as a visiting manager goes on, as does their underwhelming away record against the so-called top six. West Ham have suffered just five defeats on the road during this impressive campaign, but they have come at Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and now against United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side deserved all three points too, though without wholly convincing. Put this among the mounting pile of victories that feel as though they would have ended either in a draw or a United defeat last season. Is that a mark of progress or are the bounces simply falling their way?
Dawson’s header at the second half certainly did, with a Bruno Fernandes corner deflecting in off the West Ham defender. It would prove to be decisive, though United had chances to finish the contest through Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and the misfiring Marcus Rashford. Their wastefulness in front of goal might have been punished if not for Moyes’ own important attack.
A goalless, uneventful first half played out largely to expectation. United had plenty of the ball and showed intent but lacked the sharpness in possession that was required to break down West Ham’s five-man defence. Harry Maguire summarised the opening stages well with an expletive-laden rant at the rest of his team-mates which boiled down to a basic message: “Tidy up”.
Marcus Rashford was equally foul-mouthed after spurning a half chance by tamely heading Mason Greenwood’s cross wide at the far post. It was a decent chance but the best fell to Greenwood later in the half. The teenager forced a fine save out of Lukasz Fabianski, who tipped Greenwood’s shot onto the outside of the post, but that was little consolation to a player who still has just one league goal to his name this season.
West Ham adopted the same safety-first, counter-attacking approach which came close to earning them a result on the other side of town a few weeks ago but Michail Antonio, their only genuine out-ball, struggled to hold play up. United would simply regain possession, set up camp in West Ham’s half, then once again try and fail to break through. It was the very definition of a stalemate.
That changed eight minutes after the restart and thanks to surging run down the right by Greenwood. His cross from the byline was tipped away from Rashford by Vladimir Coufal but the resulting corner bounced off Dawson’s head and into the West Ham net while he challenged for the ball with Scott McTominay. There was more than a touch of fortune about the goal but if either side deserved the lead, it was United.
Once behind, Moyes was forced to loosen the shackles but this only offered United’s attack more space in which to operate. Fabianski had to be alert, first to dive and parry a low Fernandes piledriver from distance, then to come rushing off his goal-line and sweep the ball from the Portuguese’s feet after he had been delicately slipped in behind by Rashford.
West Ham, by contrast, were still waiting to register their first shot on target but carried a latent threat. The solid centre-half pairing of Maguire and Victor Lindelof were on hand to intercept several promising crosses, while Luke Shaw put his body on the line to block Tomas Soucek from having a clear sight of goal.
United were now the ones playing on the break, with Greenwood striding forward and striking the post while most of the West Ham defence were caught upfield. In a mirror image of the first half though, Moyes’ side could not convert any of their pressure into clear-cut opportunities and though the one-goal margin made for a nervy finish, the final whistle eventually put United nine points clear of their fifth-placed visitors and in firmly command of their top-four fate.
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