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West Ham 0 Manchester United 4 By Frank Malley, Press Association Sport
Paul Scholes came up with the sort of strike which has been his signature throughout a fabulous career as Manchester United gave notice that they are in no mood to give up the chase for their title with a 4-0 victory over West Ham.
And the way his team-mates slapped his back and ruffled his hair after the 20-yard left-footed thunderbolt had rippled the Hammers net must have gone some way to end his own doubts.
Only 24 hours before, 35-year-old Scholes had been bemoaning his lot. He even hinted he might not seek to renew his contract when it runs out at the end of the season.
Well, there are few Premier League midfielders who could have bettered the strike which came in the dying seconds of stoppage-time in the first half of a contest which was beginning to fray around the edges for Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
Further goals from Darron Gibson, Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney made it comfortable for the visitors after the break.
Ferguson had sent out a makeshift defence to start with, after seeing Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans all sidelined through injury. Midfielder Darren Fletcher filled in at right-back with Gary Neville and Wes Brown in the middle.
Yet after half an hour Neville pulled up, clutching the right side of his groin.
It brought the biggest cheer of the afternoon from an unsympathetic home crowd, saw an angry remonstration between Neville and his dugout as they pondered a substitution, and led to a reshuffle which saw midfielder Michael Carrick come on to shore up the centre of midfield.
Carrick and Fletcher played as if they had defended all their lives in a match which was long on midfield industry and short on goalmouth thrills until Manchester United took total control in the second half.
Of course, Ferguson, back on the touchline after his two-match ban for criticising referee Alan Wiley, never fields a side not prepared to shed every last drop of sweat in the team cause.
And with Chelsea threatening to open an unbridgeable gap at the top of the Premier League before Christmas, this was a must-win match.
But if Scholes caught the eye with that screamer which goalkeeper Robert Green got his hand to but could only divert into the net, then United owed this victory as much to Ryan Giggs.
At 36, Giggs is a contender for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, as much for the longevity of his career at Old Trafford as what he has done in 2009.
Yet it seems as he nears the end of his career his performances are better than ever.
His surge deep at the heart of the West Ham defence on the hour mark was a perfect example, skipping past defenders and releasing his pass perfectly into the stride of Gibson who powered a brilliant strike past goalkeeper Green to extend United's lead.
The strike was as true as that of Scholes. It might even have been better. Tomasz Kuszczak had to make a superb save a few minutes later when Alessandro Diamanti curled a free-kick which appeared bound for the top corner.
But after that it was all United. A bright run from Anderson produced a cross which gave Valencia an easy tap-in after 71 minutes.
And more good work from Scholes a minute later sent Valencia away and his pinpoint cross was steered home by Rooney for the fourth.
It was a trifle harsh on West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola, whose philosophy apparently remains attack at all cost. But it was also an example of what being champions really means.
Ferguson even saw Brown limp off at the end, with Giggs finishing the game at left-back and Carrick and Evra in the centre of defence. Some sides might have buckled with so many defensive problems. Adversity, as always, seems to bring out the best in United.
The bottom line is that the victory kept them in touch with Chelsea.
For West Ham the relegation fight goes on.
West Ham Green (Kurucz 73), Spector, Tomkins, Gabbidon, Ilunga, Collison, Kovac (Dyer 67), Parker, Stanislas, Franco, Hines (Diamanti 46).
Subs Not Used: Faubert, Da Costa, Nouble, Payne.
Man Utd Kuszczak, Fletcher, Neville (Carrick 34), Brown, Evra, Gibson (Berbatov 67), Anderson, Valencia, Scholes, Giggs, Rooney (Owen 72).
Subs Not Used: Foster, Park, Nani, De Laet.
Goals: Scholes 45, Gibson 61, Valencia 71, Rooney 72.
Ref: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).