Manchester United hit the road on Thursday for their final away day of the 2017/18 Premier League season. Just one point against West Ham will be enough to secure second place, the club's highest finishing position in five years.
As if that weren’t exciting enough, United’s trip to the London Stadium also brings another reunion with former manager David Moyes. West Ham appointed The Chosen One in November after the Slaven Bilic experiment ended in disaster. By turning to Moyes, though, much of the football world figured the Hammers had only traded the frying pan for the fire.
But Moyesy rose to the challenge and officially staved off the relegation threat with last weekend’s 2-0 win at Leicester. It hasn’t been pretty and the fans aren’t terribly impressed, but West Ham survived for another tilt in the top-flight next season.
But Moyes’s future in London remains up in the air. He avoided the indignity of back-to-back relegations, but still might find himself out of a job at season’s end. Moyes may even elect to jump ship after a chaotic second half — punctuated by supporters storming the owners’ box in January — and seek saner employment elsewhere.
While the man has his faults, he can claim a legit victory in keeping the Hammers up after such a calamitous start. It’s not a trophy, but more than enough to keep Moyes out the managerial wilderness.
On Thursday, West Ham must contend with an angry Manchester United side intent on redemption. Following the 1-0 loss at Brighton, José Mourinho did not mince words: “Not good enough because the players that replaced others didn’t perform at a good level. When individuals don’t perform at a good level, it’s difficult for the team to perform at a good level.”
“Maybe now you understand why some players play more than others,” the manager continued. “For some of them, the possibility to start the game, the possibility to give reason to the ones that during the season are always critical of my choices — Why always Lukaku? Why always Lukaku? Why always Lukaku? You have the answer.”
That’s a chilling assessment of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, who finally got a chance to play up top and did nothing with it.
But, speaking of Lukaku, optimism continues to grow that the Belgian frontman will be back in time for May 19’s FA Cup final. Don’t expect to see him on Thursday, but at least he should be fit for Wembley. If everyone weren’t already anxious to get Big Rom back as soon as possible, the attacking performance at Brighton should be a wake-up call.
In defense, Mourinho explained Eric Bailly’s absence last week as a calculated move to help the club’s other center backs stake a World Cup claim. Bailly’s Ivory Coast did not qualify, while Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, and Victor Lindelof are all fighting for spots in their respective national teams.
Whatever defensive lineup Mourinho chooses will face a depleted West Ham attack. Ex-Red Chicharito missed the Leicester match with a knee injury and top scorer Marko Arnautovic hobbled off with a second half knock.
A high-profile signing from Bayer Leverkusen, Chicharito never really panned out for the Hammers. He's only scored one goal since mid-February (bringing his season total to an underwhelming 8) and looks to be on his way toward the London Stadium exit door.
These two clubs opened the Premier League season at Old Trafford on August 13, with United jumping all over Bilic’s Hammers for a 4-0 win. The Reds could really use another clean sheet — and plenty of goals — to wash away last week’s abject performance at Brighton.
A big win would also bring some much-needed happiness after a very difficult week for the club. Sir Alex Ferguson’s health crisis took everyone by surprise and led to an outpouring of support from fans and players worldwide. Rushed to the hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage last weekend, the United legend remains in intensive care.
Such a horrible event certainly puts sport in its proper perspective, but United’s players and management could offer no better encouragement to Sir Alex than to make a winning end to this season.