October 30, 2014

After closing down the Boleyn Ground in style on the pitch - though the same can't be said for the surrounding area - West Ham United could take a huge step in securing a Europa League spot if they leave the Britannia Stadium with a victory over Stoke City on Sunday.

The Hammers (16-14-7) are sixth in the table on 62 points, one behind Manchester United in the race for Europe's second-tier competition. Though West Ham have a mathematical chance at fourth, they would need a lopsided win and Manchester City to be routed at Swansea City to overcome an inferior goal difference.

West Ham, however, could wind up getting that Europa spot even if they slip behind Southampton and into seventh. If Manchester City finish fourth, they would relinquish the Europa berth that goes to the League Cup winner, and United could enter the Europa League by winning the FA Cup title after the season ends.

The last time they blew bubbles at Upton Park will be remembered happily and wistfully, as West Ham rallied to defeat Manchester United 3-2 on Tuesday night. Dimitri Payet set up goals by Michail Antonio and Winston Reid four minutes apart in the final quarter-hour as the Hammers avenged their FA Cup quarterfinal ouster by United on those same grounds and dealt the Red Devils a crippling blow in their bid to secure a Champions League spot.

"Obviously Winston with that late header, what a great feeling and what a great night," Antonio told the team's official website. "It started off with us getting here, and the fans were all singing our names and stuff like that, and it's been a great feeling so hopefully we can finish this and get home.

"(Europe) is the plan. Other teams might slip up and we might end up getting a Champions League spot so hopefully we can push on and keep moving."

The FA, though, will be conducting an investigation into the pre-match chaos surrounding Upton Park in which Manchester United's coach - surrounded by riot police as it was slowed to a crawl just outside the stadium - was hit with bottles and other assorted objects. The incident recalled memories of the late 1970s and '80s of British football, considered some of the darker days for the sport before sweeping changes were made in response to the Hillsborough tragedy that killed 96 Liverpool supporters in 1989.

''I truly hope that in due course we will look back on what happened in the stadium rather than what happened outside and remember our farewell to the Boleyn for all the right reasons,'' said West Ham co-chairman David Sullivan.

"Sadly, the actions of very small minority of people outside the ground prior to kickoff risks overshadowing those celebrations," he said. "I want to be clear - their behaviour was completely unacceptable and does not represent our club or our values."

Standing in the way of potentially hosting Europa League matches at West Ham's new Olympic Park venue are Stoke City (13-9-15), who can secure their third consecutive top-half finish with a victory and potentially overtake Chelsea for ninth in the final table.

The Potters, however, are winless in their last six league matches (0-2-4) and have one win in their last nine after a 2-1 defeat at Crystal Palace on May 7. Charlie Adam staked Stoke to an early lead, but Dwight Gayle responded with a brace after the interval, leaving manager Mark Hughes frustrated as a team once in the running for these same Europa spots have fallen by the wayside.

"We're disappointed we haven't been able to finish the season strongly, as we know we usually do, but there are reasons behind that," Hughes told the club's magazine #pottersmag. "Our challenge is to be a consistent Premier League team in the top half. That's what we've been able to do for the most part in the last three years.

"We have a big game against West Ham and we have got to try and go out with a great performance. That's certainly our intention."

Hughes will be without midfielder Stephen Ireland, who suffered a broken leg in training Tuesday.

The teams have split the points in their last three matches after a scoreless draw in London in which West Ham outshot Stoke 23-12 and put eight shots on frame to the Potters' three. Stoke City are unbeaten in the last five (2-3-0) between the teams since a 1-0 home loss March 2, 2013.

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