Paul Pogba was spot on for Manchester United as the Frenchman scored two penalties to help the Reds beat West Ham United 2-1 at Old Trafford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were not on top form against the Hammers but still managed to maintain the fight in the nail-biting battle for a top-four place, despite being given an almighty fright by the Londoners.
Pogba had given the Reds a 19th-minute lead from the penalty spot but former City boss Manuel Pellegrini’s side wouldn’t lie down and came back to level in the second half through Felipe Anderson.
The Hammers almost went ahead, when substitute Mihail Antonio hit the crossbar and was then denied by a world-class save from David De Gea, but fortunately another spot-kick award got United out of jail. After his compatriot Anthony Martial was brought down, Pogba scored again with ten minutes to go to secure three points and keep the Reds on the coat-tails of Chelsea and Spurs.
West Ham had started the game as the more composed of the two sides and the more dangerous.
The Londoners thought they’d taken a 10th-minute lead through Felipe Anderson as he smashed in a Chicharito knockdown from close range. But the goal was quickly cancelled out as the referee’s assistant flagged for offside.
There was naturally disappointment for the visitors but seemingly few complaints at the decision.
The Reds had been getting a few crosses into the box but it always seemed to be the diminutive Juan Mata who was in the prime position, with little chance of connecting. But the service was more to the Spaniard’s liking when Anthony Martial passed to his feet inside the area after 17 minutes. Just as Mata went to strike the ball, he was taken out by a strong challenge from Snodgrass.
Referee Graham Scott had no doubts it was a spot-kick, despite the derision from the Hammers’ travelling support, and Pogba put all his power behind his hit as he beat goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski with a piledriver virtually down the middle of the goal.
It was just the settler United needed after some difficult early moments. West Ham, though, were not downbeat and still caused the Reds some heart flutters at the back.
It was something of a disappointment that Pogba’s opener did not fire the Reds as expected and there was a fruitless struggle to get a second goal before the break, with only a wild effort from Diogo Dalot and a header from Chris Smalling giving some encouragement for the crowd.
West Ham, fortunately, didn’t produce much themselves with just an off-target swipe from Anderson and then a superb run down the right from the Brazilian that saw his low shot-cum-cross kept out by David De Gea’s outstretched leg.
The Reds were culpable when the West Ham equaliser finally came early in the second half.
Like the first 45 minutes, the visitors began the more confident of the two teams. But when De Gea gathered the ball in the 49th minute, it should have been the start of the Reds launching an attack.
However, the Spaniard bowled out a ball that was too heavy and caught Pogba by surprise. West Ham seized possession and their counter attack ended when Manuel Lanzini floated a cross to the far post and an unmarked Anderson steered home.
Solskjaer’s reaction to the leveller was to bring on Marcus Rashford for Mata in the 55th minute.
The sub’s introduction almost paid immediate dividends and credit to Chris Smalling as he burst forward out of defence to put the striker in with his pass. Rashford thrashed in a low shot that keeper Fabianski couldn’t hold and the ball squirmed away almost across his goalline with the loose ball crying out for a tap-in.
Rashford’s arrival was proving a potential match changer with the Mancunian then heading just over into the Stretford End after 63 minutes as the Reds began to look far more threatening.
The initial spark began to fade and Solskjaer made a double substitution in the 75th minute in a bid to lift his labouring side once again; Mason Greenwood and Andreas came on for Romelu Lukaku and Marcos Rojo.
West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini made his own changes with Antonio coming on for Chicharito before Solskjaer’s swaps, and then Zabaleta made way for Fredericks.
But it was Antonio who made the biggest impact and rattled the Reds when his scorching shot had the cross bar shuddering and then a header needed a brilliant flip over the bar from De Gea to stop the Hammers going in front.
The double threat woke the hosts up and when Martial was clumsily brought down by Fredericks, the Reds were awarded another penalty.
Pogba versus Fabianski take two ended with the same result as the French midfielder crashed in from 12 yards to seal a much-needed win.
United: De Gea, Dalot, Jones, Smalling, Rojo (Andreas 75), Mata (Rashford 55) Fred, Pogba, Lingard, Lukaku (Greenwood 75), Martial
Subs not used: Romero, Lindelof, Darmian, McTominay
Goals: Pogba (19, 80 pens).
West Ham: Fabianski, Zabaleta (Fredericks,760, Ogbonna, Balbuena, Masuaku, Rice, Noble, Snodgrass, Lanzini (Diangana 62), F. Anderson, Chicharito (Antonio 72)
Subs not used: Adrian, Diop, Obiang, Holland Goals: Anderson (49).