United yet to perform like champions
A stumble rather than a stride is the means by which Manchester United are approaching their 20th title. If City lose at Spurs on Sunday, then Monday and Aston Villa can be the clincher, but we still await the keynote performance of a true champion. They were well short of that at West Ham, but on previous history, a draw is not such a bad result.
Manchester United have decidedly mixed memories of Upton Park.
They won their last league title for 26 years with a 6-1 win in 1967, but 25 years later, the shin of the otherwise long-forgotten Kenny Brown stopped the Red Devils ending their long hoodoo a year early. Three years later, a third title in succession was denied by the final-day heroics of goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko and the erratic finishing of Andy Cole.
That May afternoon saw a visibly bereaved Ferguson urging his players back into the dressing room as Hammers fans celebrated United's demise with raucous schadenfreude. It was at this stadium too where David Beckham met the angry public who blamed him for England's exit from France '98. The local boy had to endure effigies hanging in the Chicken Run, receiving a similar welcome to that which Paul Ince used to receive.
After all that, the ill feeling is by no means one way. On the final day of the 2006-7 season, Manchester United fans coming to cheer a title coronation for the first time in four seasons urged their heroes to "send 'em down" before a Carlos Tevez goal preserved the Hammers' Premier League status.
This time there was not quite so much at stake. Sam Allardyce's team were a point from safety, Sir Alex Ferguson's seven points from their 13th title under him. The margin is now six points, and Allardyce can celebrate safety with five matches to spare. That new contract of his? No news yet.
Perhaps the last flash of the Robin van Persie who has made the difference this season came at Upton Park in January. A whiplash finish of a Ryan Giggs pass in a Third Round FA Cup tie had him hailed as the world's best, though Allardyce in that evening's post-match expressed a preference for "that lad at Atletico," meaning Falcao. Recent form has borne out the Allardyce eye, and this was another halting performance. Before his controversial close-range goal, Van Persie's best effort came from an Antonio Valencia cross, but Jussi Jaaskelainen made a save from a header that should not have troubled him.
If Van Persie is off the goalscorers' life support machine, Wayne Rooney looked in deeper decline. The all-action midfielder who enjoyed himself at Stoke on Sunday became a negligible presence at number 10, his passes never coming off and his shots never beating the first man. When Ferguson replaced Rooney with Giggs, he held out a hand of acknowledgement, but Rooney only trudged past in dejection. On this evidence, PSG might be welcome to him.
Rooney was hugely overshadowed by a sometime England partner. Andy Carroll is out of West Ham's price range for a permanent move, said a horse-trading Allardyce at the weekend. The temptation might be to play him less to keep the price down but he performed with valuable menace. An early shot rained in after some twinkle-toed control, a header from a corner looped over the bar and the creaking knees of Nemanja Vidic had their work cut out all night. The bear-pit atmosphere of yesteryear was absent, with fans rather peaceful in the spring twilight. Carroll's animal-like danger brought the evening to life.
Matt Jarvis sped away on the break beyond Rafael, and his deep cross was nodded down by East London's favourite Geordie to where Ricardo Vaz Te could score. Carroll's threat did not stop there. David De Gea and Patrice Evra were both clattered to the ground by a berserker's charge for a corner. The second half began with another roughing up of the Spanish keeper for which he was penalised. "It's an obvious red card," said Ferguson of the first challenge, but Carroll was booked only for dissent after the second and survived to almost wreak further havoc with a 35-yard boomer that was just narrowly over.
"It was momentum, I couldn't stop myself," said Carroll with a knowing shrug.
Perhaps unnerved by such buffeting, the champions-elect were too often slack in possession and tepid of movement. Passing triangles were failing, Van Persie often struggled out wide when he was better served in the centre. Shinji Kagawa suddenly flickered into action in the manner expected of Rooney. A rapier change of pace took him to the left byline, and the coolness of his pass gave Antonio Valencia, so hesitant these days, the easiest of finishes. The Ecuadorian's last Premier League goal was a year ago at Blackburn, when it looked to given United the momentum to claim a title they eventually lost.
This strike was not quite so important. Mo Diame's swerving strike around the visitors' defence and an unsighted De Gea meant Manchester United would have to fight once more at Upton Park.
And in turn, Kagawa was once more the spark for recovery. The Japanese livewire's final contribution before his substitution was to crash the ball off the woodwork. Van Persie was waiting for its rebound, from an offside position. The manner of the goal did not allow Allardyce to celebrate reaching 39 points and almost certain safety.
"The team has played the best they can play and they have scored one of the best goals of the season and the assistant referee takes it away from you,'' he said.
Allardyce had not taken into account the offside law which centres around phases of play. Van Persie, from what might have been a second phase - who really knows these days? - had scored his first goal in open play since against Everton on February 10 and reduced United's target to two straight wins. It might seem almost unfair of a team 13 points ahead and still able to surpass Chelsea's record total of 95 points from 2004-05, but the second equaliser's nature reflected that United are trickling to the title.
"I thought we played like champions, absolutely magnificent. We don't like losing, we showed that," said Ferguson. His second point was undeniable. The first was questionable at best.