Manchester United-West Ham United Preview
For all the extensive hand-wringing, rumours, criticisms and other assorted sagas and storylines that have gripped Manchester United throughout this season, here is the truth heading into the final week of the Premier League season:
Louis Van Gaal can bring the Red Devils back to the Champions League with victories in their final two matches.
That challenge begins Tuesday when West Ham United look to play the role of spoilers as they close down Boleyn Ground and Upton Park in their home finale.
United (18-9-9) did their part to help control their own destiny Saturday by winning 1-0 at relegation-threatened Norwich City as Juan Mata collected a nice layoff from Wayne Rooney and scored from close range in the 72nd minute. They then got the best of all possible results Sunday when noisy neighbours Manchester City twice were pegged back by Arsenal in a 2-2 draw at the Etihad, leaving everything to play for this week.
The result left Manchester United in fifth place, two points behind City, but with a match in hand. The maximum six points from this contest and their home finale Sunday versus Bournemouth would let Van Gaal's side pip City for fourth.
Whether that would be enough for Van Gaal to see the final year of his three-year contract signed in 2014 will be a hotly contested debate in many circles from Manchester pubs, throughout England and Europe and all the way up United's boardrooms as Jose Mourinho continues to wait in the wings. But the Dutchman knows those debates can't happen unless he gets a victory Tuesday.
"Now we have to play at West Ham United and we've seen already in the quarterfinal of the FA Cup that it's not so easy," he told MUTV and BT Sport after Saturday's victory. "West Ham are a very good team - it's not for nothing they're in the top six of the table. We were lucky in the Cup."
While the Champions League is still the be-all, end-all goal for Manchester United, they can still reach the Europa League with either a fifth-place finish or a victory over Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final later this month.
Van Gaal will likely make some lineup changes given the quick turnaround. His decision to rest teenage starlet Marcus Rashford raised some eyebrows, but Mata's form at Carrow Road made sure he wasn't missed. The status of Anthony Martial will be closely scrutinised ahead of this contest after being removed from the starting XI during the warm-ups due to a leg injury.
"Anthony felt something and I'm a manager who is not taking risks," Van Gaal told MUTV. "When a player says he feels something, he shall not play. He is 20 years ago. I have to take care of him so he didn't play."
Manchester United are unbeaten in their last six matches (5-1-0) across all competitions but are 3-5-3 in their last 11 on the road in league play. All three wins have come by 1-0 scorelines.
West Ham United (15-14-7) still have designs on playing in Europe as well next season, but their options are restricted to the Europa League due to a late swoon in form. Perhaps feeling the weight of the moment, the Hammers were overrun 4-1 at home by Swansea City on Saturday and dropped to seventh in the table behind Southampton after the Saints ran out 2-1 winners at Tottenham Hotspur the following day.
The heavy defeat ended a 15-match unbeaten run at Upton Park in league play for West Ham, who never recovered from goals by Wayne Routledge and Andre Ayew six minutes apart in the first half. The Hammers also had a 10-match spell without a loss end in their first defeat since a 1-0 reversal at Southampton on Feb. 6.
"They took their chances and we didn't - it's as simple as that," Hammers talisman Mark Noble told the team's official website. "We started really well, moved it well, had three or four corners and some good chances, but we couldn't hit the back of the net and got caught on the counter."
The task now is to regroup quickly in what will be an emotional farewell night with fans in full throat at The Boleyn Ground, where Hammers have called home since 1904. While there won't be any trophies lifted, the team's improved play this season has raised hopes for bigger and better things ahead of the move to Olympic Park, and the chance to host Europa League matches next season is a powerful motivator.
"It will be an emotional night and is a big game when you always play United, but the fact that it is the final ever game makes it even more special and we have to stay cool and stay focused because we want to win the game," manager Slaven Bilic said. "We have been thinking about a European place since we knew it was reachable and we can still do it. When we give our best we still have a lot to offer."
The teams played a tepid scoreless draw in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in December, combining for three shots on target. Manchester United dumped West Ham out of the FA Cup in the quarterfinals, winning a replay 2-1 at home on second-half goals by Rashford and Marouane Fellaini after a 1-1 draw at Upton Park in which Hammers playmaker Dimitri Payet scored on a 35-yard free kick.
West Ham are winless in 14 league matches (0-3-11) versus United since a 2-1 victory Dec. 29, 2007, and winless in 12 overall (0-5-7) since a 4-0 triumph in the League Cup in 2010.