Robin Van Persie scored the fastest goal in Premier League this season as Manchester United maintained their spot at the top of the table after a less than comfortable 1-0 win against West Ham United.
On a bitterly cold night at Old Trafford, the crowd were given the perfect winter warmer after 33 seconds of the game as Robin Van Persie produced a piece of brilliance to notch his ninth Premier League goal of the season.
The Dutchman received a pass from Tom Cleverley, before flicking the ball past Winston Reid and rounding the West Ham defender in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Dennis Bergkamp’s effort against Newcastle a few seasons ago. Once he had got past Reid, Van Persie saw his delicate lob helped past Jussi Jaaskelainen by a deflection off James Collins as United got off to the best possible start.
While the result would have pleased manager and supporters alike, United were again far from convincing and made hard work of a game that should have been pretty straight forward, despite the excellent effort put in by a workmanlike West Ham side.
After sixty abysmal minutes against QPR on Saturday, Ferguson partly reshuffled his line-up, confirming only some of the XI that had started four days ago, with Smalling, Cleverley, Hernandez and Carrick replacing Ferdinand, Young, Welbeck and Fletcher. After his brilliant cameo on Saturday, Anderson was handed a starting spot, replacing the suspended Paul Scholes alongside Tom Cleverley, a partnership that many amongst the United fans believe holds the key for their club’s future success.
Cleverley confirmed all that’s known about him – excellent touch, good vision and an ability to get in good positions – but unfortunately he also displayed all the many flows that still blight his game and have somehow hampered his development in recent weeks, for he often picks out the wrong option, loses the ball way too easily and has a tendency to over-complicate things.
Anderson, on the other hand, confirmed himself as United in-form midfielder, with an energetic display, coupled with some excellent touches.
Much has been made of United’s lack of tempo this season and the ones amongst the crowd that thought an early goal would improve the situation were soon to be deluded, as United slumped in this season’s all too familiar routine of passing the ball sideways, while making half-hearted attempts to penetrate the opposing back four.
In fact, apart from Kevin Nolan’s flick-on that found the side-netting with ten minutes played, the game developed without a single chance until the half-hour mark when Javier Hernandez displayed an excellent first touch to set himself up before forcing an excellent save from Jaaskelainen.
West Ham reemerged after half-time buoyed by their effort in the first 45 minutes and determined to hassle United with an array of high balls into the box, where Andy Carroll did nothing to justify neither his price-tag nor Allardyce’s decision to bring him to Upton Park.
United went close to double their tally five minutes after the restart when Cleverley’s shot fizzled over the bar, before Rooney called Jaaskelainen into action again ten minutes later with a precise curling effort that was palmed behind for a corner by the Finnish custodian.
Rooney, much like Cleverley, at times seemed to suffer from United’s lack of width. While the diamond formation might offer more protection and dynamism to the midfield, it strips United of the ability to stretch opponents on the flanks, a crucial component of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Furthermore, United don’t quite possess the guile to “tiki-taka” their way into the box, definitely not against teams that are happy to set up camp at the edge of the box.
Ferguson tried to inject a bit of pace and width into the game when he replaced Cleverley with Young midway through the second half, before Rooney made way for Danny Welbeck 15 minutes later.
Despite the introduction of a traditional winger, United continued to create virtually nothing in terms of chances and had to thank Anders Lindegaard, who pulled off a superb save to deny Carlton Cole four minutes from time. The save ensured United’s first clean sheet in the last ten games in all competition, and kept United a point ahead of City and seven ahead of Chelsea who were held to a 0-0 draw by Fulham.
Not one for the annals but Fergie knows perfectly well that, come May, results such as tonight’s could spell the difference between joy and despair.