Had you been an observer at the end of Matchweek 6, when West Ham had breezed past a lacklustre Manchester United at the London Stadium, you may well have been tempted to speculate on how the fortunes of the two clubs would map out during the remainder of the season.
Could it be possible that be the brilliantly coiffured Manuel Pellegrini could turn his team, now up to 5th place in the table, into credible top six contenders? Would the impish Ole Gunnar Solskjær confirm the view of the many naysayers that his was no more than a short-term tenure at Old Trafford and scuttle off back to the fjords?
By the halfway point in the season, the Pellegrini dream was over as the Hammers plummeted towards the bottom three while in Manchester, the Red Devils continued to drift along in an unconvincing mid-table no man’s land that did nothing to enhance their manager’s credibility . The West Ham board eventually ran out of patience with their man dismissing him just after Christmas and the chances of Solskjær making it until end of the season still looked doubtful.
Fast forward to today and much has changed. West Ham have finally scrambled clear of the relegation places while Manchester United have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence, prompted by the signing of Bruno Fernandes in the January transfer window, and now have eyes firmly on Champion’s League qualification.
West Ham overwhelmed Watford in the first half of last Friday’s game but still found time to give us all the serious jitters thanks to a collective loss of concentration between the second half restart and the drinks break. I feared more points needlessly thrown away yet again and was mightily reassured to see both Deeney and Doucouré removed from the field of play – one of Nigel Pearson’s last acts as Watford manager. In the end we managed to settle down again and were able to see the game out. The temperament of the team is impossible to fathom at times. It has been particularly bad this season but the ability to protect a lead has long been a weakness. Chickens can never be prematurely counted where West Ham are concerned.
It was pleasing to see Mark Noble become the 10th West Ham player to make 500 first team appearances for the club. Although I don’t expect to see too many more starts for him in the future, he still has time to overtake Geoff Hurst, Vic Watson and Steve Potts in the all-time appearance stats. One more league goal for the skipper would also see him draw level with Paolo Di Canio as the Hammer’s leading all-time Premier League goal scorer (with 47 goals). A place among the backroom or coaching staff would be a fitting reward for Nobes.
Given his current rich vein of form, it is also worth pointing out that Michail Antonio only needs six goals in each of the two remaining games to also equal Di Canio’s total. He can do no wrong at the moment and I fully expect to see him pop up and head home one of his own long throws one day. As things stand, no Hammer has yet reached double figure for league goals scored – finding a reliable regular goalscorer continues to be as elusive as dodo playing hide and seek. Antonio is leading the field with nine (equalling his previous 2016/17 best) which have been impressively scored achieved from just sixteen starts.
Today’s game is a rare opportunity for West Ham to record three league wins in a row. To do so, though, requires the Old Trafford form book to be torn up, shredded, and pulped. In the twenty-three Premier League meeting in Manchester, West Ham have won just twice (2001/02 and 2006/07) while there have been two draws and nineteen defeats. Attitude will also play a part now that the spectre of relegation has been removed. It has never needed much for the Hammers to take their foot off the gas and David Moyes will need to summon untold levels of motivation to get one over on his old club.
Although the hosts are not the strongest at the back (and can be sloppy when trying to play out of defence) they have plenty of pace, movement and scoring options in attack. Defensive organisation, 100% concentration, and the legs to get forward quickly in support of Antonio will be essential if this is not to become defeat number twenty.
Manchester United are one of the clubs reportedly interested in securing the signature of our club’s greatest asset, Declan Rice. It is impossible to know how this saga will play out during the close season, but with all the speculation I have yet to see any numbers quoted that I consider realistic – particularly if you are using Harry Maguire as a benchmark (Leicester must still be pinching themselves over that transfer fee). Certainly what we wouldn’t need is any Old Trafford clearance stock in part exchange. I have a funny feeling that Rice will eventually end up at Liverpool, but hopefully not any time soon.
Paul Tierney from Wigan makes the short trip to Manchester to perform the man in the middle duties while Championship referee Peter Bankes is at the helm in Stockley Park. In the absence of home support, VAR can once again be the 12th man for the Reds.
Putting a spanner in the Red’s Champion’s League aspirations would provide a memorable end to the season. A ten goal defeat would put a cat among the pigeons for us in a season that refuses to die.
The pundits are adamant that this will be a home victory. Charlie Nicholas has gone for 3-1 while Lawro has chipped in with 2-0. It is difficult to find grounds to argue with their logic as Manchester United chase that Champion’s League spot – and the Hammers have little to play for other than finishing above Crystal Palace. On the other hand, who needs logic when blind unfounded optimism is available? West Ham to win 3-2.