Only five starters from the 4-0 league win over Wigan on New Year’s Day remained in the team: De Gea, Evans, Cleverley and Hernandez, while Rafael kept his place but was pushed forward into a midfield diamond. Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick were rested, while van Persie was among United’s substitutes.
It was a scrappy, somewhat formless start to the game but chances soon flowed freely at both ends. After nine minutes a sliding Chicharito couldn’t quite connect with Smalling’s pass across goal, while West Ham quickly went up the other end and from a corner Paul Scholes cleared a header off the line and Nemanja Vidic mopped up from the rebound.
United had the ball in the back of the net as the sprightly Shinji Kagawa picked out the run of Chicharito, who squared for Welbeck to finish past Jussi Jaaskelainen. Chicharito, however, was clearly offside. United had been gradually ramping up the pressure on the West Ham goal when Vidic’s header from Alexander Buttner’s corner was cleared off the line by young Dan Potts.
But the inevitable breakthrough arrived on 23 minutes, and in some style. Rafael and Chicharito combined down the right and the latter’s cross fell at Tom Cleverley’s feet at the far post. Cleverley’s first-time finish was excellent – he adjusted his body shape to steer the ball unstoppably into the far corner of the net.
The lead was surprisingly short-lived, however, as West Ham’s energy and efficacy remained undiminished. Four minutes after United scored, Joe Cole, playing his first game since rejoining the Hammers, crossed for James Collins to glance a header beyond De Gea.