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Jan 16, 2013

Returning stars lead the way for United

When Wayne Rooney went back to the England World Cup squad in 2006 after treatment to his injured foot, he famously and ill-advisedly said "the big man is back". Many a subsequent Rooney return has had a similar billing, but not this. Robin van Persie's huge achievements in 2012-13 ensure his has been the giant contribution to Manchester United's season.

And so it was fitting that, even as Rooney's restoration to the side meant he was the headline act, this tie was decided by a man who did not take to the field at Old Trafford. Despite a period of pressure in the second half, West Ham's chances probably disappeared with an elegant swing of Van Persie's right foot in injury time at Upton Park. Their performance suggested they believed their opportunity had gone, anyway.

Despite another dreadful penalty, Rooney rubber-stamped their elimination, the replacements winning the replay as the Premier League leaders made 10 changes and progressed. West Ham, with a sizeable contingent of injured and ineligible players, were limited to six, plus a switch in shape, but the supporting cast had no modern-day equivalent of Paolo di Canio, the instigator of an upset in 2001.

His talent once tempted Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him. Rooney's ability prompted the Scot to make him one of the three costliest players in United's history in 2004. Now approaching a double century of goals, but still without an FA Cup winner's medal, Rooney set up a fourth-round meeting with Fulham.

Last spotted at Swansea when virtually nothing he tried came off, he returned after a five-game absence looking sharper and, initially anyway, proving more successful. It only took him eight minutes to deliver the winner.

It has been a season of comebacks for United, but here it entailed players returning, rather the than the team overturning a deficit. Anderson, another who was on the injured list, picked out Javier Hernandez with an incisive pass. "A magnificent ball," Ferguson said. Then the Mexican, predator turned provider, squared unselfishly for a sliding Rooney to put the ball in the open goal.

Thereafter, there was evidence of his altruistic streak, as Rooney did some of Nani's defensive work as the Portuguese appeared for the first time since November, as well as the wrong sort of generosity. Increasingly erratic from 12 yards, Rooney blazed a spot kick into the Stretford End after Jordan Spence had handled Ryan Giggs' cross. Perhaps the Welshman should have taken the penalty; the supplier of Van Persie's equaliser 11 days earlier exerted a similar influence, this time as a starter. It was certainly appropriate the game finished with its oldest player in possession; he took greatest care of the ball and, twice, almost provided his side with a clinching second goal. Indeed, Hernandez, who did most things but score, had the ball in the net from a Giggs pass, only to see it disallowed.

"We missed a lot of chances," Ferguson complained. Indeed, Nani had a shot cleared off the line but profligacy did not cost Manchester United. A pattern is developing when opponents are allowed back into the game in the second half and, like Liverpool before them, West Ham advanced. Yet, short of strikers and opting not to play with wingers, they fashioned few chances.

Not that Sam Allardyce agreed. "We have created so many opportunities," insisted the West Ham manager, also complaining that his side were not awarded a penalty when the ball hit Rafael's hand. "There was no doubt whatsoever about the difference between Rafael's handball and Jordan Spence's. Jordan Spence plays for West Ham away against Manchester United and Rafael plays at home at Old Trafford."

And, at a stroke, the discussion went from the big man to Big Sam.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs. There was a time earlier this season when Giggs' time finally looked up. Now he has regained the sprightliness he has exhibited for much of his career. His interpretation of a central midfielder's duties are often looser and more liberal than others' but he roams around intelligently and remains his ability to time a tackle, as Ricardo Vas Te can testify. "A fantastic human being," said Ferguson.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Playing with two wingers and two strikers made them open and the wide men, Nani and Antonio Valencia, perhaps did not do enough. Alexander Buttner, deputising for Patrice Evra, gifted West Ham an opportunity with an unconvincing piece of defending. He does not look ready to provide an alternative to the rested Patrice Evra. It meant more work for the central defenders, but Phil Jones and Chris Smalling stood tall. "Our two centre-halves were absolutely magnificent," Ferguson said. Anderson also impressed, particularly in the first half.

WEST HAM VERDICT: After a recent slump, Saturday's league game against QPR took priority as Allardyce rested some of his key men, with Joe Cole left in London and Kevin Nolan starting on the bench. He also switched to a back three and Alou Diarra appeared uncertain when deployed out of position as a makeshift centre-back. A bonus was that Mohamed Diame made his first appearance for five weeks while Elliott Lee, son of former Newcastle and England midfielder Rob, made his debut as a substitute. With Dan Potts, son of Steve, West Ham are playing a generation game though Lee's introduction seemed to owe much to Allardyce's frustration with Vaz Te. A lack of goals on the road is a concern to the manager and, despite his analysis, a lack of chances was a reason for their latest blank.

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