Robin van Persie struck after 33 seconds as Manchester United edged past West Ham at Old Trafford. But it turned into a nervy evening for the Barclays Premier League leaders, who were well below their best.
Scorers: Manchester United - Robin van Persie (1)
Bookings: Manchester United - Carrick; West Ham United - Nolan
And, while the visitors were not exactly on top form either on a bitterly cold evening, they came close to snatching a point late on, when Anders Lindegaard denied Carlton Cole.
On his return to Old Trafford last Friday for the first time since he was bombed out by Sir Alex Ferguson six years ago, Ruud van Nistelrooy declared his hope that Van Persie would eventually eclipse his United career.
As Van Nistelrooy scored 150 times in five seasons with the Red Devils, Van Persie has some way to go. He could hardly have made a better start though. The 29-year-old’s 12th goal came in his 18th game, one fewer than Van Nistelrooy managed it in following his arrival from PSV Eindhoven.
With a side lacking any orthodox wingers, Van Persie checked inside from the left flank, then made his way to the edge of the area as Michael Carrick exchanged passes with Anderson.
Van Persie swivelled past Winston Reid as he collected Carrick’s forward pass, then profited from James Collins’ desperate attempt to block, which only sent the ball looping over Jussi Jaaskelainen and in.
West Ham manager Sam Allardyce must have feared the worst but his team showed real resilience.
Skipper Kevin Nolan turned Matt Taylor’s low corner into the side-netting before Andy Carroll smashed a volley not that far over Lindegaard’s goal.
As anticipated, Anderson’s introduction for only his second Premier League start of the season provided the hosts with momentum from midfield. The lack of width was clear though.
Javier Hernandez screwed a shot wide for the hosts and the Mexican was responsible for the only other decent chance in the opening period, when Jaaskelainen turned his shot from the edge of the area around a post.
Once again anchored in midfield, it was one of those nights when Wayne Rooney struggled on the periphery of proceedings.
He did manage to drive over from 20 yards after taking Jonny Evans’ short pass but it was a rare threat to the West Ham defence.
However, it was not until he took aim with a curling shot from the edge of the area that Rooney became a central figure as Jaaskelainen tipped it away.
The Finn pushed away Carrick’s flick on from the corner, then, as Chris Smalling tried to scramble home, Nolan kept his nerve to clear from a tricky spot.
Ashley Young’s arrival did little to relieve United’s general feeling of lethargy, though, and West Ham began to sense they could snatch something. Carroll’s exit may have gone down well with the home faithful but it only meant Carlton Cole could take advantage of the softening up process of the home defence.
And, when Ryan Taylor screwed the striker’s knockdown wide, his reaction was an indication of what a good chance it had been.
Rooney’s departure 14 minutes from time was not unexpected. The fact his replacement, Danny Welbeck, immediately had to clear from inside his own six-yard box was proof of what a nervy evening it had become.
Anderson’s signal that he needed to come off was not a good sign and, before Phil Jones could replace him, Cole came agonisingly close to levelling but Anders Lindegaard turned away his five-yard effort.
It was as near as the visitors came but United made it tricky for themselves with their sloppy defending in the final minutes.
Man Utd: Lindegaard, Da Silva, Smalling, Evans, Evra, Carrick, Anderson (Jones 84), Cleverley (Young 66), Rooney (Welbeck 78), van Persie, Hernandez. Subs not used: De Gea, Ferdinand, Fletcher, Buttner.
West Ham: Jaaskelainen, Demel, Reid, Collins, O’Brien, Taylor, Diame (O’Neil 76), Tomkins, Jarvis (Maiga 70), Nolan, Carroll (Cole 62). Subs not used: Spiegel, Spence, Moncur, Lletget.