An arm-wrestle, a nonevent, a fair share of the spoils: any of these verdicts might have been apt until, deep into added time, Marcus Rashford finished Edinson Cavani’s cross from the left to send himself, Manchester United, and the Old Trafford faithful into ecstasy. Cue Rashford, who has been off-colour, rushing across the Stretford End to knee-slide, joined by his jubilant teammates.
If there may be a debate as to whether any part of Cavani’s arm was offside, Ralf Rangnick deserves full credit as the No 21, Rashford and Anthony Martial – who had played in the Uruguayan – were late attacking substitutions. For Rashford this was a second goal in consecutive outings: across this game and Wednesday’s 3-1 win at Brentford, he has doubled his Premier League output for the season. The forward, like United, may be stirring in the business phase of the campaign.
Before the showstopping climax this had been a match of mediocre fare that did not augur well for either team’s Champions League qualification hopes. Yet for United, who leapfrogged West Ham and are fourth, at least overnight, the picture changes after a fifth victory in Rangnick’s eight league games as interim manager.
Early on Mason Greenwood had a shot that was blocked when he might have passed – a recurring fault. Bruno Fernandes, too, made the wrong decision when hitting a cross-field pass that lacked power: Jarrod Bowen dragged the ball down, surged forward and let fly, though not on target.
Vladimir Coufal then dawdled and was mugged by Fernandes, the right-back having to concede a free-kick. Ronaldo hit this into the wall and Greenwood – again – took aim and once more was unable to test Alphonse Areola, on his first league appearance in West Ham’s goal.
United’s one change from Brentford was Harry Maguire in place of the excused Victor Lindelöf, whose home had been broken into during the week. The captain was up against Michail Antonio and the centre-forward’s clumsy touch allowed Maguire to win their first duel. Declan Rice emerged a victor when challenging Ronaldo, sitting the No 7 on his backside with a robust challenge, then laying the ball off.
Fernandes’s curving delivery from the left had Ronaldo flinging himself toward – and missing – the ball. Next, poor control from Anthony Elanga, again preferred to Rashford, had Rangnick flinching but this hardly surprised as each team took turns to find a way to founder. For West Ham Manuel Lanzini tapped a pass to Pablo Fornals, received the ball back, and hit it straight out.
The closest United offered to a goal-threat before the break was a Ronaldo shout for a penalty when going down under Kurt Zouma’s challenge: Jonathan Moss waved this away correctly.
The half petered out, ending with zero shots on target. United were in the same position as at Brentford and an initial burst involving Ronaldo, Alex Telles and Elanga was reminiscent of their second half start there, when the last of that trio scored .
Fred drew a first save from either keeper with a fierce drive that Areola punched away. Were United awakening? A Ronaldo back-heel towards Greenwood that had West Ham scrambling suggested as much.
The visitors’ response took in Fornals dallying near United’s penalty spot, Bowen firing into the side-netting, and Coufal spraying the ball wildly into touch. Then Bowen drew a foul from Maguire and West Ham had a promising position on the right. Ronaldo, though, headed away Cresswell’s delivery and this led to a United attack and corner. When Telles landed it on Raphaël Varane’s head the centre-back’s flick-on was wide but at least caused “oohs” from the Stretford End as did an Elanga swivel-and-volley that, again, missed.
This was the young Swede’s last act, Rangnick deciding he should be hooked for Rashford in the first of the German’s substitutions. The latter’s quick feet were involved in two openings but the first was a detour into a cul-de-sac; the second a swapping of passes with Ronaldo before he ran out of space down the left.
As the final whistle approached, Tomas Soucek went close for West Ham with a glancing header that veered past David de Gea’s right post. Then, the goalkeeper’s reflexes stopped Varane scoring inadvertently past him. By the end Cavani and Martial had joined Rashford and Ronaldo for United’s dramatic finish – and win.
They will now enjoy their winter break before reconvening at home to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup on 4 February.