Tevez returns to haunt Hammers
There is a certain symmetry. Carlos Tevez, Manchester United, West Ham and a potentially decisive goal have featured in the climax to a season before. Twelve months after he secured the Hammers' Premier League status at Old Trafford, the diminutive Argentine helped his current employers advance towards a second successive title and a tenth in 16 years.
This was an East End reunion with a distinctly happy ending for their former saviour and it provided another reminder that he savours the spotlight. Tevez's propensity to contribute on the major occasions has been noted before, not least by Sir Alex Ferguson, who drew a comparison with Eric Cantona.
His late leveller against Blackburn, coupled with other similarly important strikes against Chelsea, Tottenham Liverpool and Lyon, has given Tevez the reputation of a big-game player. Another for the collection of significant strikes means that now only Wigan stand between United and back-to-back titles.
Responsibility, too, seems to aid his game. Four strikers seems a requirement everywhere but Ferguson, more than any of his counterparts, pioneered it. Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer formed the class of 1999. Nine years on, United have one senior specialist striker available but, paradoxically, less seems more.
With his distinctive style of harrying, his low centre of gravity emphasising the energy of his game, Tevez has the vigour of a quartet of men and, partnered by a player who has outscored entire teams in Cristiano Ronaldo, he was far too good for West Ham.
A 30-yard dipping shot of wonderful ferocity enabled him to upstage even the Footballer of the Year in the manner of his goal, if not his individual haul. The prolific Portuguese making his own headlines by striking twice to proceed unchecked through the 40-goal barrier.
His failure to score against Barcelona meant that Ronaldo had equalled his longest drought of the season, albeit only four games. As Ferguson said sarcastically, and in a different context, earlier this week: 'Disaster.' The Portuguese's less-than-lengthy wait for his 39th of the season was ended in the fourth minute. Accepting possession on the right touchline, he skipped away from a slipping Lucas Neill, advanced unchecked into the penalty area and drove a shot that flicked off George McCartney and past Robert Green.
West Ham's defending was still worse for the landmark 40th. Owen Hargreaves was granted room to cross, James Tomkins leapt and missed the ball altogether while behind him, John Pantsil neglected to jump. Still further back was Ronaldo and the ball struck his stomach to bounce in.
Among all the spectacular goals the Portuguese has scored this season this one won't feature on the highlight reel at the end of the season, but it could not have been more important in the destiny of the Premier League title.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson had nothing but praise for Ronaldo, whose first-half double left him just one adrift of Alan Shearer's 31-goal Premier League record.
'How many players could score that many?' reflected the United boss. 'He is improving all the time. He always wants the ball, which takes a lot of courage, and don't forget, while he played up front today, he has spent 90% of the season on the wing. It's been a great day for us and we have a big chance of the title.'
With no room for error, Monday's clash at St James' Park between Chelsea and Newcastle becomes more important and Ferguson added: 'The way Chelsea have been talking is that it'll be easy up there - but we know that's not the case.'
For their own sake, it is to be hoped the Blues did not invest too many hopes in West Ham to divert the Premier League trophy to Stamford Bridge. It scarcely boded well for Avram Grant that Alan Curbishley had branded his United counterpart 'Mr Amazing' and suggested it would be unfair if they did not win the league. West Ham were in no mood to perform an apparent miscarriage of justice. They may have beaten United in their previous three encounters, but this was a performance reminiscent of Curbishley's Charlton, who were far more accommodating.
Perhaps a rare experience of the Manchester sun helped lent a distinct end-of-season feel to proceedings, but West Ham were generous in permitting United the freedom of the Old Trafford turf. Only Dean Ashton, a supposed target of Ferguson and a scorer with an excellent overhead kick, should be spared from blame.
It was a measure of their abjectness that they were as ineffective and still more timid in the majority of the match when they were only facing ten men after Nani received a red card for head-butting Lucas Neill.
It pre-empted a less eventful second half though United could take pleasure in the sight of Neill diverting the ball past the luckless Green. That allowed Michael Carrick to become the second former Hammer to score against his old club, though his goal rather lacked the spectacular impact of Tevez's.
Even before then, the visitors approach was bemusing. Confronted with a team with one fewer player, West Ham changed from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1, a particularly unadventurous damage limitation exercise that scarcely succeeded. With friends like Alan Curbishley, Avram Grant may wonder if he needs enemies.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo - The footballers', fans' and writers' player of the year displayed why he has another hat-trick of awards. It is now 30 Premier League goals in as many starts. No one else wins as many matches or possesses the tricks to embellish them.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson's selection of an unchanged side posed the question of if, in the continuing absence of Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic, this is the side he considers his strongest. Nani, however, may have played himself out of the Champions League final XI and his actions can only enhance Ryan Giggs' chances of a start.
WEST HAM VERDICT: The scoreline flattered them, the valiant Ashton apart. This was an abject performance from a side who afforded Manchester United far too much time and room. Many feel the current criticism of Alan Curbishley is harsh, but it was not a day to silence his doubters.