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Attack the best form of defence for Man Utd

You could be forgiven for believing Premier League officials have already commissioned their official engraver to carve Chelsea's name onto the Premier League trophy for a third time, yet writing off Manchester United is a dangerous game.

• West Ham 0-4 Manchester United

Most observers seem to have come to the conclusion that the title race in England's top flight only features a solitary horse even though we are a long way short of the half-way point in the season and yet the reigning champions found themselves a mere five points behind, even though their start to their campaign has been indifferent at best.

Carlo Ancelotti's irresistible machine have been hailed an unstoppable force after their stunning 3-0 victory against Arsenal last weekend, yet Chelsea didn't look quite so invincible when they took on their closest rivals a few weeks ago and United chief Sir Alex Ferguson has been in this game for long enough to appreciate that his title dream is a long way from being a lost cause.

The five-point advantage Chelsea held over United going into this weekend's games is hardly insurmountable for a team of United's class and the fact that they are still within touching distance of the in-form league leaders after a troubled few weeks in their own camp confirms the champs cannot be dismissed just yet.

United went into this tough away game without the bulk of their first choice defensive line-up as keeper Edwin van der Sar was joined on the absentee list by Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and John O'Shea, with Darren Fletcher filling in at right-back and Irishman Darron Gibson handed a rare start in midfield.

Their defensive woes mounted as captain Gary Neville lasted a mere 33 minutes of this game at Upton Park before pulling up with an injury and instantly signalling to the bench that he needed to be replaced. We were then treated to extraordinary sight of Neville berating his manager as Michael Carrick was ushered into the action to replace him, with the United skipper clearly unhappy with the choice of substitute. Manager Ferguson will not have been too impressed by Neville's very public show of displeasure and he will doubtless face a dressing down as a result.

It was a scene that summed up a disjointed opening first half from a make-shift, black-shirted United side that only discovered their touch when Paul Scholes broke the deadlock on the stroke of half-time, with his 99th Premier League goal a classic strike from one of United's golden greats.

The veteran Scholes still had so much to do as he controlled the ball with his chest on the edge of the box before unleashing a left foot drive that keeper Rob Green could not keep out despite getting a firm hand on the effort. The discussion in the press room at the break was whether the current England No.1 should have done more to keep out the effort.

United had been the better team in the first half, but they could consider themselves fortunate to be in front after creating few chances and yet they cranked up through the gears after the break to turn on the style and sweep West Ham away in the east London rain.

The second goal in this game was always going to be crucial and a classy move featuring the ever brilliant Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney paved the way for Gibson to lash home his third goal of the week after 61 minutes. It was a quality strike from a side who only needed to turn on the style for a few more minutes to polish off their victims, with Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney adding gloss to the triumph with further goals.

The manner of West Ham's second half collapse will have been a point of concern for Hammers boss Gianfranco Zola and he looked more than a little bedraggled as he faced the media in a crowded Upton Park press room. "The first goal changed the story of the game because they had not created so much up to that point," said Zola. "After that, I can have no complaints because United were better in the second half. My players gave everything, but we handed them incentive and they exploited it."

United manager Ferguson was full of praise for his team as he reserved special praise for in-form midfielder Gibson. "This is a hard place to come as we have discovered down the years, so it was a great win for us," said Ferguson. "Getting the goal on the stroke of half time was vital for us as it allowed us to settle down and we played with much more composure in the second half.

"I was pleased to see Gibson get another goal. I've always felt he should score more from outside the box as he has great power in his shooting and we finished it off well. Winning 4-0 is a good result away from home and will have a great chance to challenge for the league if we get a bit closer to Chelsea in the next few weeks."

United ended the game with just ten men as Wes Brown joined Neville as an injury victim and with seven members of United's defensive line now out injured, the likes of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher may have to get used to a spell playing in less than familiar defensive positions.

"We had six defenders missing before this game, so losing Neville and Brown today means we are down to the bare bones," added Ferguson. "Hopefully Vidic is back for Tuesday night and we will have to play Carrick in defence again against Wolfsburg. I'm sure he will do a job for us."

United's second half showing in this game was as clinical as you will witness in the Premier League and so long as they can come through their mounting defensive injury crisis, any plans Chelsea may have to host an early title winning party will have to be put on hold.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scholes
The United midfielder has been accused of showing his age in the last year, but he pulled the strings for the champions at Upton Park and his goal was crucial in setting up their victory. He picked up his customary yellow card in the second half to complete his day.

FINE CAUSE: West Ham set this match aside as a day to raise money for the Bobby Moore cancer charity and the appearance of 1966 World Cup hero Martin Peters prior to kick-off reminded all present of just how significant a victory in South Africa next summer could be for English football. "England have been given a good draw and if they can't get out of their group, they don't deserve to be in the competition," Peters told the sell-out crowd.

BREAKING NEWS... Injured United defender Rio Ferdinand was planning to attend this game against his old club along with US rapper 50 Cent, but 'Fiddy' was forced to pull out of his trip to Upton Park at the last minute. It was, indeed, a tragic turn of events.

UNITED VERDICT: Any side that can win a Premier League game with this much ease when they are without half a dozen first team starters remain a force to be reckoned with. United's second half showing was impressive.

WEST HAM VERDICT: The Hammers had their chance to cause an upset against a second string United team, but they had no answer when the likes of Giggs, Scholes and Rooney turned on the style. A relegation battle lies ahead.

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