Robin van Persie's goal after just 33 seconds was enough to keep Manchester United top of the Premier League in a 1-0 win over West Ham at Old Trafford.
The Dutch striker's ultra-fast opener appeared set to be the first of many as the home side looked more formidable than in recent weeks against the over-achieving Hammers.
But a strong defensive display kept the visitors in the contest until the final whistle, with substitutes Carlton Cole and Modibo Maiga coming close to equalising.
On an away trip to the current league leaders, a common aim is to avoid conceding for as long as possible. Unfortunately for Sam Allardyce and his players, that hope ended after 33 seconds at the Theatre of Dreams.
Van Persie, who without a goal in his last three games was going through somewhat of a crisis by his own superb standards, flicked the ball over Winston Reid and watched his subsequent shot deflect off James Collins over Jussi Jaaskelainen and in within moments of kick-off.
The perfect start for the hosts also ended a 16-minute record for the fastest Premier League goal this season set by Arsenal’s Theo Walcott at Everton in a slightly earlier kick-off, marking another moment of frustration for the Gunners courtesy of their former star striker and his new club.
The Red Devils bossed possession and often looked good value to extend their lead, but West Ham nonetheless had a host of chances of their own, with skipper Kevin Nolan flicking a Matt Jarvis free-kick narrowly wide of the near post just 11 minutes in.
Nolan almost poked Matt Taylor’s distance drive beyond Anders Lindegaard on 23 before Javier Hernandez forced a decent save from Jussi Jaaskelainen and James Tomkins, shifted forward to defensive midfield duties, had to cut out more than one dazzling Reds passing sequence.
Wayne Rooney’s placed low curler just before the hour mark provoked another fine parry from Jaaskelainen for a corner which sparked a frantic goalmouth scramble, but the Irons continued to stay in the match.
The hosts continued to crank up the style and their best move of the match on 74 minutes almost set up Van Persie’s second – and more importantly, breathing space for the entire side – but for Guy Demel’s perfectly-timed sliding interception.
In the dying embers, a West Ham free-kick was headed down to Cole, whose chested-down volley on the turn was kept out by Lindegaard before Nolan had a stoppage-time effort closed down and Patrice Evra got away with a nightmare back pass attempt thanks to defensive colleague Jonny Evans at the death.
The tense finish meant that, ironically, a comfortable performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men finished as a shaky three points, when the opposite had been the case for a number of their victories so far this season.
MAN OF THE MATCH
James Collins - West Ham United: The Hammers back line all worked hard to stay in the contest until the very end, and Collins made more challenges, blocks and clearances than anyone.
MANCHESTER UNITED: Lindegaard 8, Rafael 7, Evans 8, Smalling 7, Evra 6, Anderson 7, Carrick 6, Cleverley 6, Hernandez 6, Rooney 7, Van Persie 7. Subs: Jones n/a, Young 5, Welbeck 6.
WEST HAM UNITED: Jaaskelainen 8, Demel 8, O'Brien 7, Reid 7, Collins 8, Tomkins 8, Diame 5, Nolan 6, Jarvis 7, Taylor 6, Carroll 5. Subs: Maiga 6, Cole 6, O'Neil 5.
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- Carlton Cole
- West Ham