Manchester United hammered out a statement of intent to their title rivals as the champions returned to the top of the Premier League with a 1-0 win at West Ham United. Sir Alex Ferguson's side had arrived in east London in second place after Liverpool's late 3-2 fightback at Portsmouth 24 hours earlier.
But United showed they have no intention of relinquishing their crown, as Ryan Giggs' second half goal sent them two points clear of Rafael Benitez's second-placed side. By the time Liverpool are next in action, that lead will have extended to five points if United win their game in hand against Fulham on 18 February.
The Old Trafford team are beginning to have the look of champions again and this was the kind of obdurate display that has become their hallmark this season. For decades Ferguson has prided himself on producing teams who dazzle with their flair, but this crop of United stars are just as happy to grind out a 1-0 victory as they are to put on a show.
United's defensive excellence in recent weeks has reached record-breaking levels and they chalked up another milestone en route to a 13th consecutive cleansheet and an eighth successive win. Ferguson's back-four needed to be at their best again as West Ham made a tigerish start. Nemanja Vidic sent Lucas Neill's cross looping just over his own crossbar and, from the resulting corner, Australia defender Neill forced Edwin van der Sar into action for the first time with a low strike.
Carlton Cole had a golden chance early on to show why England coach Fabio Capello, watching from the stands, had called the West Ham forward into his squad for Wednesday's friendly against Spain. Cole had only van der Sar to beat as he surged onto David Di Michele's pass and held off Rio Ferdinand, but his attempted chip was easily stopped by the United keeper.
After a relatively subdued opening, United began to find some momentum. Dimitar Berbatov had the ball in West Ham's net midway through the first half when he poked home Paul Scholes' deflected shot, but the United striker's effort was correctly ruled out for offside. A clever corner to the edge of the penalty area by Giggs caught West Ham flat-footed and when Cristiano Ronaldo nudged Scholes' strike towards the top corner, Robert Green was forced to make a reflex tip over.
van der Sar milestone
As the first half drew to a close, van der Sar reached another landmark. By keeping a cleansheet to that point he established a new British league record of 1,156 minutes without conceding a goal, beating the previous high set by Aberdeen's Bobby Clark in 1970-71.
West Ham's eight-match unbeaten run testified to their own fortitude and they pushed forward at the start of the second half, with Neill drawing a smart save from van der Sar. But United's array of flicks and feints ensured the Hammers could never be comfortable. With Ronaldo seemingly content to moan rather than mesmerize, it was left to Giggs to break the deadlock in the 61st minute with a classic piece of wing-play.
Giggs relies more on experience than trickery nowadays, but the Welsh midfielder showed he still has talent, as he cut inside Cole's lunging tackle and swerved past Scott Parker into the penalty area before sending a fierce low shot fizzing past Green. Gianfranco Zola's side responded well and Cole was unlucky to see a flicked effort deflect wide but, despite the fact that United were never at their best, the feeling grew by the minute that the visitors' defence would remain unbreached again.