Rooney double sends Hammers crashing

Manchester United 3 West Ham United 0 ON-FIRE Wayne Rooney s double-barrelled blast shot down the Hammers at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening writes Steve Blowers. In sub-zero temperatures on a freezing, February night, the England striker took his seaso

Manchester United 3 West Ham United 0

ON-FIRE Wayne Rooney's double-barrelled blast shot down the Hammers at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening writes Steve Blowers.

In sub-zero temperatures on a freezing, February night, the England striker took his season's tally to 27 with two headers, before substitute Michael Owen's late strike sealed the victory that moved Manchester United to within just one point of table-topping, Chelsea.

Following Saturday's shock defeat at Everton, Sir Alex Ferguson had made five changes as Ben Foster, Anderson, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes and Darren Gibson received call-ups in place of Edwin Van Der Sar, ex-Hammer Michael Carrick plus substitutes Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher and Ji-Sung Park.

And kicking off in second spot, the reshuffled Red Devils wasted no time in trying to close a four-point deficit on Chelsea, as Robert Green bravely plucked Gibson's first-minute cross off the studs of Dimitar Berbatov and then Jonathan Spector marked his return to his former club with a brilliant block on Antonio Valencia.

Gianfranco Zola's 13th-placed side had arrived looking for an unlikely hat-trick of victories following their back-to-back wins over Birmingham City and Hull City.

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And with Scott Parker just one yellow card away from a suspension that would see him miss the upcoming matches against Bolton Wanderers and former club Chelsea, the Hammers boss decided not to risk a tenth booking for his marauding midfielder, who was replaced by Mark Noble.

That meant the Italian adventurously stuck with the 4-4-2 formation that had served him so well over the past fortnight and, on the quarter-hour mark, Carlton Cole let fly Hammers first effort of the night but his wayward 20-yarder curled well wide of Foster's left-hand angle.

Strike-partner, Guillermo Franco then played in the overlapping Valon Behrami, whose low angled effort scorched agonisingly past the far post and, with the visitors visibly growing in confidence, Alessandro Diamanti - who else - tried his luck from 25-yards but the back-pedalling Foster saved the deflected effort.

Despite freely foraging forward, West Ham still had to be defiant in defence and James Tomkins robbed Rooney, before Matthew Upson blocked Berbatov, who also saw the wrong-footed Green recover to save his brilliant backheel with an outstretched leg.

With Park replacing the injured Anderson (knee), the England 'keeper fielded two efforts from Gibson, who also saw his low 20-yarder tipped around the base of the left-hand post for a corner, ten minutes before the break.

But just when it looked like the hard-working Hammers would deservedly make it to the interval all-square, misfiring Manchester United finally broke the deadlock with a Rolls Royce of a goal as Berbatov chipped deep to Valencia, who sent a cushioned, side-footed scoop back into the danger zone, where the stooping Rooney nodded an unstoppable diving header beyond the helplessly exposed Green.

Having just given his side that 38th-minute lead with his 25th-goal of the season the England striker then sent an audacious 20-yarder onto the roof of Green's goal to leave West Ham walking off at half-time still only one down.

Mido replaced Franco as the Red Devils kicked off a second half with a free-flowing move that saw Park instantly rock the right-hand angle before any Hammer had even touched the ball.

But United did not have to wait too long to double their lead and, on 55 minutes, Berbatov again found Valencia, who invited Rooney to send another unstoppable header past Green.

The rampant Rooney was now after his hat-trick and, after leaving the Hammers 'keeper stranded by the corner flag, his audacious angled touchline attempt was cleared off the line by the retreating Julien Faubert.

Tomkins also produced the tackle of his life to deny the England striker in the act of shooting, while at the other end, Behrami's by-line cross was just an inch too high for Cole, while Diamanti's stinging 25-yarder was saved at full stretch by Foster.

Jack Collison then came on for Behrami before Kieron Dyer replaced Diamanti for the final quarter-hour that saw Rooney - job done - and Berbatov retire but if West Ham thought their torment was over they were sadly mistaken for, with ten minutes remaining, Scholes played in substitute Owen, who calmly clipped his eighth goal of the season over the grounded Green to cement victory.

West Ham: Green, Faubert, Spector, Upson, Tomkins, Behrami (Collison 62), Kovac, Noble, Diamanti (Dyer 75), Franco (Mido h/t), Cole. Unused subs: Stech, Ilan, Da Costa, Daprela.

Attendance: 73, 797.

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