Perhaps David Moyes will not cost Manchester United Champions League football for a second time. When Michail Antonio put an obdurate West Ham ahead, the manager whose sacking gave him the unwanted distinction of the shortest ever reign at Old Trafford was on course to inflict a different kind of damage to his former club.
Yet while United were not anywhere near their best, both the fact they levelled and the manner of the goal illustrates why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has avoided the fate Moyes suffered in 2014. The Scot was dismissed when a top-four finish became mathematically impossible and the Norwegian, who has made a faith in youth a flagship policy, saw Mason Greenwood deliver the goal that means, for the first time since September, United are in the top four after a full round of fixtures. They have not lost in the league since January and, after leapfrogging Leicester City, if they extend that unbeaten run against them on Sunday, their main aim for the season will be achieved. They are almost there.
Yet their week threatened to be disastrous when Antonio struck. United had already lost an FA Cup semi-final and were in danger of squandering their hard-earned gains in the league when they trailed. They have a second potential route into the Champions League, but winning the Europa League poses certain difficulties for a club in the wrong half of the draw. But they have climbed one mountain. They were 14 points behind Leicester with 13 games to go. Now, finally, they are above them.
But West Ham deserved much of the credit. Moyes has sought to stiffen the resolve of a team long regarded as a soft touch. They have fewer flair players but possess a blueprint for blue-collar work. Angelo Ogbonna excelled in defence, Moyes’ January buy Tomas Soucek has strengthened the midfield and the converted winger Antonio has been a talismanic presence in attack. West Ham were already safe to all intents and purposes but guaranteed it. Moyes still has not won at Old Trafford as a visiting manager, but this was an endorsement of him.
In contrast, United were below par with Bruno Fernandes unusually quiet. The recalled pair of Anthony Martial and Greenwood drew saves from Lukasz Fabianski in the first three minutes but that proved a false dawn and the Pole went untested for half an hour until he tipped Marcus Rashford’s swerving, Cristiano Ronaldo-esque effort over.
And, against the run of play, the visitors soon led. When, after a short free kick, Declan Rice hammered a long-range shot and Paul Pogba went down, the temptation was to assume it hit him in the head with such velocity that he could be at risk of concussion. Instead, replays showed, and VAR ruled, that his raised arms had protected his face. Antonio duly sent David de Gea the wrong way from the penalty spot for his eighth goal of a remarkably productive July.
There was no surprise Solskjaer stuck with the goalkeeper, despite the calls for him to be dropped after his hideous error against Chelsea, and he had been a spectator until then. The redemptive moment came later, justifying Solskjaer’s loyalty as De Gea tipped Jarrod Bowen’s rising shot over the bar but the winger, another winter arrival, looked at home on this stage. Rice, with a fierce effort from distance, also came close to a winner while Antonio headed Mark Noble’s free kick over the bar.
But after the shock of going behind, United emerged energised and soon equalised. It was a high-class goal, two speedy forwards showing their skill in close quarters as Martial and Greenwood exchanged passes before the youngster rifled in a low shot. It was a landmark strike: his 17th of a season as a teenager, equalling the bests of Wayne Rooney, Brian Kidd and George Best in United colours. Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen were the only other 18-year-olds to have scored 10 or more goals in a Premier League campaign. In many ways, Greenwood is in good company.
Thereafter, Pogba whipped a shot over the bar but there was no onslaught. United again looked tired, perhaps a product of Solskjaer’s fondness for unchanged teams. When he tinkered, the substitute Odion Ighalo almost scored a winner with his first touch. Instead, it was United’s second successive draw at Old Trafford. Had they beaten Southampton and West Ham, that top-four finish would already be secure. As it is, the drama will go down to the final day.