Manchester United flattered to deceive in the first half of their FA Cup third-round tie against West Ham United on Saturday, weaving intricate patterns around their opponents and dominating possession for long periods without fully capitalising on their superiority.
A well-deserved lead from a precise finish by Tom Cleverley, following good work from Rafael da Silva and Javier Hernandez, was eclipsed by two glancing headers from James Collins, both supplied from crisp crosses from the reborn Joe Cole.
United’s ‘get out of jail card’ was once again, predictably, played by Robin van Persie who, after coming on as a late substitute for Hernandez and, timing his run to perfection, adroitly controlled an excellent through ball from Ryan Giggs and calmly slotted the ball past Jussi Jaaskalainen in stoppage time.
It was a familiar story for United.
So many times this season they have threatened to take a side apart early on in matches but have lacked the end result.
Some of United’s football, in the first half hour at least, was electric and reminiscent of Barcelona at their best. The movement, pace and crispness of their passing was almost hypnotic and at that time you felt for West Ham who couldn’t get near the ball and found themselves defending deeper and deeper as the half progressed.
Danny Welbeck, in particular, belied the fact that his game time over the last month or so was largely limited to a few brief appearances as substitute. He looked sharp, inventive and mobile, weaving around and through the West Ham defence and mesmerising his opponents.
The link up play between Cleverley, Wellbeck, Da Silva and Paul Scholes was at times breathtaking and Hernandez on a couple of occasions was unlucky not to get on the end of well worked moves.
Once West Ham equalised against the run of play, United seemed to lose their way and, from that point, their opponents began to get a foothold in the game and for the first time you sensed they had the belief that they could win the tie.
At 2-1 down and with 22 minutes remaining, Sir Alex Ferguson played his trump card bringing on Van Persie and Antonio Valencia for Scholes and Hernandez.
Perhaps the one surprise with this substitution, considering the need for a goal, was the removal of Hernandez, who has profited of late from his fruitful relationship with Van Persie.
Shinji Kagawa, who had struggled all afternoon after his prolonged absence from first team football, would have seemed the more likely choice to leave the action early but possibly Sir Alex felt he needed 90 minutes in his search for match fitness.
So, United, characteristically, achieved the great escape once again in a match they should have had sown up in the first 20 minutes.
It must be a continuing worry for Fergy that they appear so reliant on Van Persie and also that they seem unable to apply the killer touch when they are so much in control of a game.
United will be hot favourites to win the replay but it is an additional match that they could do without during what will be a hectic January/February programme.
I outline below my marks out of 10 and brief comments on each player who started on Saturday.
De Gea, 6: Very little to do apart from the two headed goals which gave him no chance.
Smalling, 6:Reasonably confident performance in first half. Linked well with midfield but quiet second half
Evans, 7: Sound match. Much improved this year. Had confidence to take the ball forward in second half when others around him were fading.
Vidic, 6: Not quite back to his best. Lost Collins for West Ham’s first goal.
Buttner, 5: Fairly quiet game without any major mistakes. Didn’t link as well with Kagawa and Cleverley in midfield as Smalling did with Rafael.
Rafael, 6: A bustling performance. Always looking to support and make helpful runs off the ball. Fitted in reasonably well to unaccustomed midfield role but hopefully only a temporary move.
Scholes, 7: As usual, orchestrated most of United’s play during their dominant period but faded noticeably in second half.
Cleverley, 7: Once again, excellent in first half but faded. Linked well with Welbeck. Took goal extremely well.
Kagawa, 4: Disappointing performance. Looked far from his best and the weak point in United’s midfield. Needs more match practice.
Hernandez, 6: Good cross for Cleverley’s goal and full of running as usual. Ineffective in second half.
Welbeck, 8: For me, the pick of the bunch in the first half at least. Sharp, alert, great control and vision.