Premier League
West Ham United 0 Manchester United 1

Sunday, 8th February 2009
by Gordon Thrower

I suppose three in a row at home against this lot was always going to be a tough call - but boy did we make them work for it.

There was much pre-match optimism for this one. Recent form, the manner in which the results had been coming and, of course, the relative lack of outward movement in the recently-closed transfer window all meant that the faithful were looking forward to this one, not least because there was a better than average chance of our ruining one of their precious records.

Team news was that we were unchanged from the starting XI that had gained a point from the Library: Green, Neill, Ilunga, Upson, Collins, Noble, Parker, Behrami, Collison, Cole, Di Michele. Prior to the match there was generous applause for Messrs Ferdinand, Carrick & Tevez which might have given a certain fat person something to think about had he been watching. The inclusion of Messrs. Green, Upson and Cole in the England squad was also acknowledged.

In the terminology of match reports I guess the adjective to use is "absorbing". That's the word that generally gets used when a match is good but not "cracking". The visitors were finding that their latest opponents were not ones to roll over (even if their own players were wont to do so every time a tackle came in) and we were capable of creating good half chances. With little more than 10 minutes gone we forced a corner with Vidic's header looking far from convincing. Noble's corner fell to Neill at the back post and, whilst the skipper caught the shot cleanly, Van der Sar was well placed to gather the shot.

Shortly after came the point which may have turned the match. Berbatov went down the left and pulled the ball back to nobody in particular. Upson fed Neill who fed Noble who played a superb through ball to Cole. Ferdinand blatantly pulled Cole back. To Cole's credit he stayed on his feet and tried an ambitious chip that Van Der Sar dealt with comfortably.

However, had Cole gone down Ferdinand was walking without a shadow of a doubt and the suspicion was that, had it been any of the opposition on the end of such a challenge they'd have been rolling over and the red card would have been out pronto. As it was ref Dowd should have produced a yellow as soon as the ball went dead - but as usual the laws of the game were suspended in favour of the visitors. Still on the whole I'm pleased that Cole stayed on his feet - a sign that we haven't yet plumbed the depths to which teams such as the visitors descend on such a regular basis

Dowd was getting in on the act on a regular basis - every 50-50 decision went their way - including quiet word with Neill following what was far from the last dive of the day from the perpetually cheating Ronaldo. Strangely, Cole, when hauled down by Vidic didn't get the same result from the ref - something that will no doubt have pleased the obnoxious Ferguson who tends to blow a gasket if a referee so much as threatens to give a decision against his little darlings.

The petulant Ronaldo had clearly been told to get down the left to get at Neill - or at least to fall over if the Aussie came near him. However Behrami, not for the first time in recent weeks was doing a decent job in helping the skipper out. The visitors did get the ball in the net on 20 minutes, Scholes' shot deflecting off Parker before Berbatov flicked in. However the former Spud had been a good couple of yards offside at the time of the shot, not that that stopped Ronaldo from having a moan that Parker had handled. The visitors did force a few corners but, with our recent strength in defence it's a pleasure to say that we didn't once really look like conceding.

The one really dodgy moment of note came with about 25 gone. A Ronaldo low ball into the box saw Tevez lurking. Collins slid in to block and Green, uncertain of whether he'd be able to pick it up, elected to clear first time and the resulting ricochet off Tevez could have gone anywhere but, thankfully rebounded to safety. We worked the ball straight back up the other end and Collison burst into the box and fed Cole who, agonizingly, elected to turn the wrong way and the ball was smuggled clear. The ball went up the other end and Ronaldo was given a free header from a corner that went well wide. You could see him looking for someone else to blame but failing to find anyone he elected for a shake of the head.

Failing to get anywhere by playing football the visitors reverted to "plan A" as Rafael threw himself to the ground when Di Michele happened to arrive in the same postcode as him. As ever, Dowd was a willing stooge to the diving antics and gleefully awarded a free-kick. The ball was pulled back to the edge where Scholes lurked but the second best ginger player on the pitch made a bit of a mess of the shot. Ronaldo did his best to make the proverbial silk purse out of a sow's ear by turning the ball goalwards but Green was alive to the shot and turned the ball over for a corner which was promptly delivered into Green's arms.

A promising move then came to an abrupt end as Tevez flattened Noble in a challenge that would gave resulted in a free-kick if the roles had been reversed. The roles weren't reversed and Dowd turned his usual blind eye to the events ad s he did when the appalling Ronaldo lambasted him over a handball appeal of the sort that even Ferguson would have been embarrassed to have accepted. Dissent used to be a yellow card offence until the law was changed in favour of Manchester United.

On 43 minutes we saw one of the reasons that Van Der Sar has gone so long without conceding. You see there's another law been passed. Every time he drops the ball he gets a free-kick. In truth many 'keepers have taken advantage of such generosity from the refereeing community in recent years but on other occasions there is usually an opposition player within sight. Not this time as a cross from the right was fumbled by the Dutchman. Cole was adjudged to have fouled the keeper despite the fact that the keeper had dropped the ball well before any contact had been made. Obviously I was a much better 'keeper in my day than I thought and all those dropped crosses were merely fouls.

Whilst we are talking about milestones, our bit of the ground has a ritual game of "guess the stoppage" and I made it a hat-trick with my third consecutive correct guess of one minute - that being the time taken by Dowd to lecture Neill for "looking at Ronaldo in a manner likely to make him fall over" and a half that had been, er, absorbing came to a close.

The second half started in similar vein to that in which the first had ended. We "won" a corner - Dowd forgetting himself for a moment by awarding a corner that appeared to have it a Hammer rather than a diver on the way through. Dowd reverted to type as Van Der Sar fumbled the cross once more only for the ref to bail him out with another fit of generosity. It's an old refereeing ploy I'm afraid and you could have put your house on Dowd bailing himself out of an ear-bashing by finding a foul to award as soon as the corner was taken. It's also dishonest - every bit as disgraceful as Ronaldo's antics and sadly, just as likely to be punished.

The problem we had really was that the much vaunted "diamond" system doesn't exactly lend itself to an awful lot of width and, when we do need someone to join in on the wing, we rely on Ilunga and Neill to help out. As if to exemplify this, our next half-decent effort came from Neill whose curled effort saw an unnecessarily flashy dive and save from the 'keeper. Tellingly, Neill was in the centre of goal when he got his curled effort in.

We saw more refereeing generosity to the visitors when DaSilva pushed the ball past Cheri, flattened the full-back, then somehow picked up a free-kick for it. Baffling in the extreme. Giggs's free-kick found Tevez but the header was wide to see some sort of justice done. Shortly after we saw a petulant "toys out of the pram" moment as Behrami robbed the increasingly frustrated Ronaldo who made all sorts of weird gestures aimed at anyone who would listen as he went down on his knees.

Hilariously he carried on the debate with the visitors' staff on the touchline. It was difficult to see what he was moaning about - it had been his own fault he'd lost the ball so blaming everyone else was ridiculous. I'm sure they won't put up with that sort of thing at the Bernebau next season (always assuming he can dislodge Faubert from a starting place of course). Up the other end Parker had a decent effort that he probably caught too well and he pulled it wide, though I reckon we had opportunities to soot well before Noble brought him into the game.

On 58 minutes Neill picked up a yellow for shoving the petulant one off the ball, which was fair enough really - at least this time he'd actually touched him. Vidic then, for about the 5th time hauled Cole to the floor, though it took Dowd a good minute or so to remember to book him. I suppose we ought to be grateful that he didn't book Cole for trying to have his shirt removed. The free kick sadly came to naught which was scant reward for the move that had cynically been terminated by the foul.

Then we went behind. A corner came out to Noble who lost the ball to a sly foul by Vidic who had a little tug. The ball came out to Giggs who cut inside non-challenges from Cole and Parker to curl a low shot through the crowd past Green.

Frankly the score flattered the visitors at this point and they had to rely on the full repertoire of dives and time wasting for which they have rightly become notorious over the years. The best one came on 64 minutes when somebody shoved Behrami off the ball then fell over as they lost it with Pep being the one adjudged to have committed the foul. Cole then managed to make some space for himself but drew the shot wide.

Ilunga then got inside his full back and fed Cole but the ball was somehow smuggled away for a throw. Behrami, Parker and Noble combined in similar style on the right only for Ferdinand to beat Cole at the near post. Ronaldo then had a shot blocked for a corner then spent the next few minutes whining about it to everyone within earshot. We were then treated to the sight of Behrami out-giggsing Giggs with a marvellous flick over the Welshman to clear a defensive situation.

With 15 left on the clock Savio replaced Noble, as he had done at the Library. However, our problem was that attacks kept breaking down for a lack of width, that and Dowd's awarding of free-kicks on a whim - most hilariously for a challenge on daSilva that took all of the ball and nothing of the man. Ferguson asked earlier in the week why his team were hated. I'd say getting decisions like that from love-struck and frightened officials every week doesn't help. Neither do decisions like not booking Ronaldo for either a) pulling down Behrami or b) carrying on a minute's worth of dissent at the ref for spotting the foul. Still, mere cannon-fodder that we are for the likes of Moan Utd we duly tugged our collective forelock grateful for the crumb of comfort that we'd received in the form of a whole free-kick.

With five left Zola went for broke and Behrami, who had had a fine game and made Ronaldo look as big a muppet as his side's "supporters", was sacrificed in favour of Tristan as we went three-up in search of the equaliser. Of course freed from the marshalling of Behrami, Ronaldo had space to attack Neill and, predictably went down over Neill's leg. There was contact but Ronaldo dives so much that Dowd, for once, just assumed that it was another such occasion, though as usual he was too frightened of the ranting Fergie to issue the yellow card that his decision demanded. Funny really, the one time in the game Ronaldo didn't dive he didn't get the decision. There's a moral in there somewhere though I suspect that like the word "cheat" the word "moral" isn't in the phrase book issued to players on arriving at Old Trafford. Right on the 90 the little whinger hit a free-kick that Parker bravely blocked.

Little happened in the three minutes of stoppage time - save for their increasingly Stoke like attempts to run the clock down - Van Der Sar proving that you won't concede a goal in over 1,000 minutes if you spend 800 of them pretending to retrieve the ball from behind the goal - and the match ended with a defeat that we barely deserved.

All good things must come to an end and I suppose defeat to the team that is probably going to bore its way to the league title is no disgrace. It is a measure of how far we've come in such a short time that such a result comes as a genuine disappointment rather than relief. They'll probably win the league - neither Chelsea nor Liverpool have what it takes to mount a decent challenge and, as we saw here, they are always able to grind out a result and whenever they need that little bit of help officials are usually more than willing to lend a helping hand - witness Rob Styles generosity at West Brom.

As for us, well it was summed up for me in a comment before the game from one of the gang who pointed out that we were likely to see a good game irrespective of whether or not we won - something that hasn't been the case for a while. As if to underline the point the players were applauded off the pitch despite the defeat, and that is something you are likely to see as an away penalty at the Muppet Theatre!

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Player Ratings

Robert Green
One dodgy kick and one decent save. Otherwise untested.

Lucas Neill
Not a bad game though he was helped by Pep's shackling of Ronaldo.

Herita Ilunga
Solid enough at the back but a bit reluctant to get forward.

James Collins
Maybe the corner given away before the goal was a tad unnecessary, but other than that he barely put a foot wrong.

Matthew Upson
I can't remember Berbatov getting a kick. He'd better stay safe on England duty - our record isn't great in that respect.

Scott Parker
Another strong performance - the opposition knew they'd been in a game.

Mark Noble
A lot of running but his passing was not at its best.

Jack Collison
Didn't look out of place in any way against such so-called illustrious opposition.

Valon Behrami
A master class in how to deal with Ronaldo, who was reduced to petulantly moaning at anyone within 20 yards. Neill owes him a pint.

Carlton Cole
A constant thorn in the side of the tightest defence n the league at present - Rio was lucky not to walk early on.

David Di Michele
Lots of running but we needed more in the way of pace and penetration and at no stage did he look capable of providing it.


Savio Nsereko
(Replaced Noble, 77 mins) Tried a few things but few came off.

Diego Tristan
(Replaced Behrami, 87 mins) Last throw of the dice but failed to contribute.

Jan Lastuvka
Did not play.

Jonathan Spector
Did not play.

Radoslav Kovac
Did not play.

Luis Boa Morte
Did not play.

Freddie Sears
Did not play.

Match Facts

West Ham United: Robert Green, Lucas Neill, Herita Ilunga, James Collins, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Jack Collison, Valon Behrami, Carlton Cole, David Di Michele.

Goals: None                   .

Booked: Lucas Neill 58          .

Sent off: None.

Manchester United: Van Der Sar, Rafinha, Ferdinand, Vidic, Carrick, Scholes, Ronaldo, Giggs, Berbatov, Tevez.

Subs not used: Foster, da Silva, Eckersley, Fletcher, Nani, Welbeck.

Goals: Giggs (62).

Booked: Vidic (59).

Sent off: None.

Referee: Phil Dowd.

Attendance: 34,958.

Man of the Match: Valon Behrami.