Kagawa the rescuer against West Ham

Posted by Musa Okwonga

West Ham 2, Manchester United 2. The match at Upton Park on Wednesday was not so much a game as an ordeal. The away side fell behind twice, recovered twice and endured a performance from Wayne Rooney that was as fitful as it was worryingly commonplace.

With Andy Carroll in the forward line and Sam Allardyce on the sideline, the logical thing was to expect an endless supply of high balls into the United area, and that is precisely what ensued. This is not to denigrate Allardyce as a tactician; rather, it is to respect someone who is acutely aware of his opponent's pressure points.

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Nemanja Vidic took until the second half to assert himself convincingly against the England forward, who could lay a compelling claim to have been the game's best player.

Rivaling him for that accolade was Shinji Kagawa, whose two excellent assists rescued his side on a night when it struggled for sustained fluency. It was not as though United found it difficult to retain the ball -- by halftime, according to FourFourTwo, they had completed 282 passes to West Ham’s 107, with 68 percent possession -- but they found it hard to raise tempo and play penetrative balls.

This is thanks in part to the home side’s defence but also pointed to a worrying lack of options in attacking midfield. Here Rooney was continually culpable, either conceding the ball easily or failing to press when without it.

The first goal gave an indication of what was to come. After just a quarter of an hour, West Ham were allowed to break far too early, and Matt Jarvis found an isolated Rio Ferdinand on the edge of the area with Rafael nowhere to be seen.

Jarvis drove past Ferdinand to the touchline and crossed for Carroll, from whose knockdown Ricardo Vaz Te stooped to nod the ball home. Vidic had been served notice of a thoroughly uncomfortable evening.

Fortunately for him, though, Antonio Valencia and Kagawa were in sprightly form -- the former surprisingly so -- and it was this combination that brought the equalising goal on the half-hour. Kagawa, receiving the ball at pace from Robin van Persie, speed-skated past Winston Reid to the touchline and cut the ball back to Valencia, who completed the formalities from 2 feet. It was a move that Andres Iniesta would have happily recognised.

The halftime whistle arrived, and following it, Manchester United pressed forward with greater vigour, with van Persie knocking down a floated Rooney pass for the onrushing Phil Jones, who narrowly failed to convert. After this initial flurry, though, United's play became somewhat abject.

There was a curious lack of urgency in the centre of the field. Michael Carrick’s distribution was reasonable rather than very good, and van Persie and Rooney seemed unable to combine. When West Ham regained the lead, it was hard to see who would lead United’s fight back. On 55 minutes, Mohamed Diame took a pass from Guy Demel and, turning away from his marker, curled a superb low drive across and beyond David De Gea into the bottom left-hand corner.

Again, Manchester United had Kagawa to thank. Seven minutes had passed since the ineffectual Rooney had made way for Ryan Giggs -- a change many United fans feared would instead see the Japanese international sent to the bench -- when Kagawa intervened. Receiving the ball in the congested area at the top of the box, he fashioned himself inches of room and released a fierce, deflected strike that clattered off both posts.

Van Persie, attentive as ever, thrashed the ball high into the net from a position that was yards offside. Yet again this season, United had escaped, the Dutchman celebrating his 21st Premier League goal of the season with almost as much intensity as his strike against Stoke.

There was still time for the away side to threaten a winner, with Carroll of all people stealing Giggs’ cross from the eager toes of Javier Hernandez, but the would-be champions would ultimately have been happy to leave East London with a point.

Manchester City, inevitably, seized a late winner against Wigan, and but for a more judicious linesman, the gap would be one point narrower. This title race is not over by any stretch, and West Ham offered an unpleasant reminder of how much closer it should be.

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