As a great man often said, it’s a funny old game.
On one hand, this match at West Ham United could say it just had to be. On the other, who could have anticipated an ending to a game as crazy as that?
Jesse Lingard came off the bench to overcome his midweek mishap to punish the side that helped him revitalise his career, only to then see David Moyes punished for the hubristic decision to bring on Mark Noble for a lifeline of a late penalty.
He has a superb penalty record. David De Gea has an awful one. So, of course, the goalkeeper saved in one of the last acts of a game that only escalated in chaos, finishing in a 2-1 win for Manchester United.
Even the moments before that, and Lingard’s winner, felt like they had been building to something as Cristiano Ronaldo had a series of penalty claims turned away.
There might be some questions about the refereeing decisions. There will be even more about Moyes’ decision to bring on Noble to take the penalty.
Perhaps the biggest will be did he watch the Euro 2020 final?
Moyes erred where Gareth Southgate did. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, for his part, made up for midweek by making the right subs. One was Lingard.
And yet for all the chaos of this game, there was a distinctive pattern to it.
United again looked loose, and like they could be punished, only for individual inspiration to win the game.
The first piece came from Ronaldo’s scorer’s instinct. The second from Lingard’s capacity for the spectacular.
The obvious thing to say after the day that was in it was that they were both worthy of the late Jimmy Greaves, on an afternoon where he was given a rousing minute’s applause by both his old club and the visiting fans.
It only put further focus on another big issue from this game, and this West Ham team.
Just like against Wolves and Newcastle, United could have been in a very different match had the opposition possessed a proper finisher. It has been a pattern. Here, it emphasised the absence of the suspended Michail Antonio, and West Ham’s inability to sign a striker in the summer.
Twice Jarrod Bowen got through after good work. Twice he finished so meekly. It was all the more frustrating given he had been excellent in everything else he did, which was seen with the set-up for the opening goal.
Before that, he had exposed Harry Maguire by hurrying him into an error, before Nikola Vlasic slipped in to steal the ball and feed Bowen for that first miss. The second was just such a tame shot when the box seemed to open up.
What was most striking about it was how United again offered up the space. It was even similar with the goal, despite being a deflected strike from distance. Said Benrahma wasn’t under pressure, and even had Aaron Cresswell completely free out wide. He opted to shoot, though, and Raphael Varane’s own decision to jump across saw the ball diverted past a stranded David De Gea.
Not for the first time, though, Solskjaer’s United considerably picked things up after conceding. That obviously doesn’t just apply to this season. It has been a pattern of this time, with one of the most notable examples this very fixture last season.
And, on yet another occasion in his own United career, Ronaldo scored. This was vintage later-career Ronaldo, as his movement got him free for a cross and his instinct saw him follow up to finish from Lukasz Fabianski’s parry.
It had been one of the few times West Ham had dropped off, in what was generally a display of superb energy.
Ronaldo should really have scored moments before it, and minutes after half-time.
The initial opportunity saw Kurt Zouma steam in for a brilliant saving interception – in what was an excellent all-round display from the centre-half – and the second saw Ronaldo strangely hit the ball straight at Fabianski after West Ham had been opened up.
The goalkeeper had done well, and made amends for the earlier slip, but it is the sort of opportunity the Portuguese usually takes with ease.
Later on, Ronaldo went down in a clear attempt to win a penalty, but Martin Atkinson waved play on.
It was hard not to think the United forward should have just kept going, or that the histrionics of his response weren’t at least some way about his frustration with that decision.
Another reaction from Ronaldo was more encouraging. The forward could only show his appreciation for yet another Zouma interception to deny him late in the game. It had been an awesome performance from the centre-half, who stepped up to the challenge of marking one of the game’s great players so admirably.
United were constantly looking to get the ball to Ronaldo, but constantly found Zouma there.
It was maybe why Lingard enjoyed that crucial extra space to curl in that exquisite winner.
Except, it shouldn’t have been a winner. The most eyebrow-raising drama was still to come. It all seemed too built up.
Luke Shaw handled a cross, but De Gea was evidently much sharper than Noble, as he got his own hands to the ball.
It was quite a finish, both from Lingard and the game.
Photo Credit: Getty