In a season of unpredictability, perhaps this could have been foreseen, however unlikely. Unbelievably, Manchester United now has Champions League qualification firmly in control, despite the team’s best efforts for much of the season to the contrary. Louis van Gaal’s side, so often criticised for stagnant football and poor performances, is just two wins away from a seat at Europe’s top table after Manchester City’s draw against Arsenal last Sunday. Pep Guardiola may arrive at City without Champions League football, and United may allow manager Van Gaal to lead the side for one more year.
Despite the top four being firmly in sight, the prospect of another 12 months of Van Gaal strikes dread into the hearts of many United supporters. The Reds have scored an all-time low of 44 league goals this season – level with Bournemouth – and Van Gaal’s men laboured to a lacklustre victory over relegation-threatened Norwich City at the weekend. The 1-0 win means that the Dutchman’s side has scored just seven goals in six games against the bottom three – a depressing pattern replicated against every other team in the division too.
Saturday’s game was what many described as “peak Van Gaal,” with the Reds moving the ball from side to side without any real intent to break down a normally porous Norwich defence. The winning goal game courtesy of a mistake at the back and a clever piece of play, or maybe a miss-control, from Wayne Rooney to slide Juan Mata in. It was a goal befitting United’s season after a period of aimless passing led to Antonio Valencia punting a hopeful ball up field, only for Rooney to capitalise on the error.
Unsurprisingly, Van Gaal described himself as a “happy manager” after the game ,with United scoring one, keeping a clean sheet and boasting over 70 per cent possession. Yet, 1-0 is the Reds’ most common winning scoreline this season. While a top four finish and an FA Cup win represents progress, on paper at least, on the field the team has gone backwards, leaving executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward with a decision to make at the end of the season.
Woodward’s reluctance to sack his manager has been evident since December. Despite supporter clamour for Van Gaal’s departure, it would surprise few if the Dutchman is in the Old Trafford dugout next season. At least Van Gaal’s admission that he only wanted a two year contract offers some hope that the manager may hand in his resignation after becoming aware of the antipathy towards him.
West Ham, by contrast, represents another success story in an unusual season. The Hammers have excelled in the league and were in with an outside chance of Champions League qualification until a 4-1 defeat to Swansea City at the weekend. Slaven Billic’s side enjoyed a good FA Cup campaign and West Ham fans should be excited by what is still to come, with the club moving to the Olympic Stadium next season.
Billic’s side has played positive attacking football this season and Dimitri Payet’s genius has caught the eye in East London. The Frenchman has been hugely influential, offering hope that alongside the new stadium the club is moving to a new level. Indeed, the club has already sold 55,000 season tickets ahead of next year’s campaign – Irons’ fans are certainly feeling more positive than their United counterparts.
There have been other unlikely success stories this season, notably champions Leicester City, however the Irons seem the most likely to sustain success as a result of the club’s London location, committed owners and larger stadium.
Tuesday night is the final game at the Boleyn Ground and after the embarrassing defeat to Swansea, Bilic wants to give the old ground a fitting send off.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Should United achieve fourth it will be with the club’s second lowest ever Premier League points total – and Van Gaal will become one of the game’s luckiest managers. It’s a position that could not have been achieved if City and Chelsea had performed to normal expectations.[/blockquote]
“It is a big game for a couple of reasons, one being that it is the last ever at Upton Park,” Bilic said. “One part of me is happy that we are moving forward with more capacity and everything, but another part of me will miss this special kind of stadium. It’s like a home.
“No matter where you move, even if it is to a fancier house or apartment, still your favourite home is your first.”
Van Gaal, meanwhile, is aware of the occasion, arguing that West Ham has a huge incentive to put on a good performance. However, a top four finish is crucial for United in terms of revenue, stature and recruitment – as well as for Van Gaal’s job prospects. For that alone it is United’s biggest game of the season.
“We have a lot of respect for West Ham. We are not trying to spoil their party, but we do need the three points,” Van Gaal said. “We have to win our matches because otherwise we cannot be in the first four – that’s the pressure we have. We have to fight until the end”.
“West Ham are a very good team – it is not for nothing that they are in the top six of the table. We were lucky in the FA Cup. I think we deserved to win but we were lucky West Ham had a goal disallowed in the last minute.”
Van Gaal’s personal future can be forgotten for the time being though with the club on the verge of achieving the most unlikely finish to the season. Should United achieve fourth it will be with the club’s second lowest ever Premier League points total – and Van Gaal will truly become one of the game’s luckiest managers. After all, it’s a position that could not have been achieved if City and Chelsea had performed to normal expectations.
Team news and line-ups
Luke Shaw is due to return to training with the first team this week and will at least travel with the squad to Wembley in two weeks’ time. Shaw, alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger, remain the only long-term absentees, although Anthony Martial and Matteo Darmian will miss Tuesday’s game after suffering injuries at the weekend.
With no Darmian, Antonio Valencia can expect to continue at right-back. The Ecuador captain has played well since his return from injury and linked up well with Juan Mata down the right on Saturday. Valencia’s lack of attacking prowess continues to frustrate, although his pace is useful against the Payet.
Daley Blind returns to the starting line-up after being rested against Norwich and will partner players’ player of the year Chris Smalling. Meanwhile, the inconsistent Marcos Rojo may be rested, paving way for Tim Fosu-Mensah to return to the starting line-up.
In midfield, Wayne Rooney may return to his new role after an indifferent display up front against Norwich. He will probably be partnered in midfield by Michael Carrick, although Van Gaal may be tempted to recall Morgan Schneiderlin. Jesse Lingard will do well to retain his place after a poor performance against Norwich, although Juan Mata may get an opportunity in his preferred number 10 position. With Anthony Martial injured, Memphis gets another chance on the left despite an awful performance against the Canaries.
After being rested at the weekend Marcus Rashford returns up front. Rashford scored a sublime goal on the Reds’ last visit to Upton Park in the FA Cup.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Long, S Bennett
Fourth Official: R East
West Ham 1-2 United