It wasn’t pretty, although little of Manchester United’s season can be categorised as such, but the Reds’ victory over Stoke City on Sunday surely ends any lingering doubts about the Premier League’s destination. United should now seal the title within the next three fixtures.
Defeat to rivals Manchester City last Monday came within an established pattern; United’s performances have dipped markedly since Real Madrid’s controversial Champions League victory last month. And while the Reds did little in the 2-0 win over the Potters on Sunday to break the paradigm, victory leaves Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to find just seven points in six games to secure league title number 20.
Indeed, Ferguson’s outfit will draw to within two results of the title should the Reds overcome West Ham United at Upton Park on Wednesday night. Less if City slip up against Wigan Athletic on the same night.
Upton Park is a ground that has not always held happy memories, of course, but with the Hammers just about safe, and United having righted a potentially listing ship, the opportunity will not be lost on those in red to profit from the trip to London’s east end.
Defeat to City, Chelsea in the FA Cup, together with underwhelming Premier League performances against Reading and Norwich City in the past month, proffered a strong impression that United’s was a season stumbling to a close. Victory at Stoke came not so much at a sprint, but at least with some comfort.
“Character,” said Ferguson, brought victory in the midlands, although critics might point to the palpable lack of that quality post-Madrid. Still, with Wayne Rooney dropping back into midfield, and United prepared to graft for victory, Ferguson’s team secured points that were always of more value than any praise for style. At least at this stage of the campaign.
“I always say you don’t leave your character in the dressing room and I think we saw that against Stoke,” said the 71-year0old United manager.
“The Britannia Stadium is not an easy place to go to and we had this swirling wind in the first half in particular, which was difficult, but nonetheless we had to find a way through it and we kept our composure. We weren’t over-anxious about the game – we kept playing the ball, passing it around.
“We didn’t make a lot of chances, but we’ve done that at Stoke over the last six years and made very few chances but usually won the games. The performance and the character the players showed was terrific.”
Sunday’s was United’s fourth victory in five visits to Stoke’s ‘new’ home ground, exposing the disingenuous claim that the Potters’ home turf is anything but a soft touch – at least for Sir Alex’ side. Still, with poor results having haunted Ferguson’s team of late, Sunday’s points will likely prove invaluable come the season’s denouement.
After all, momentum matters, which is why United’s visit to east London is certainly no time to regress into complacency, despite the Reds’ renewed 15-point Premier League lead.
“Now it’s West Ham and we have to play well again,” adds club captain Nemanja Vidić
“They play in a similar style to Stoke – we’re going to have long balls and set-pieces to deal with. Yes, you think you’re almost there but you have to win the games. It helps us build up the confidence and a few players had a great game – people like Antonio, Wayne and Robin. It’s important for players like this to be in good form for the games to come.”
Even so, Ferguson is likely to refresh his side for the trip south, with Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck in line for a recall. Meanwhile, Rooney could revert to a more attacking role should Cleverley come back into the side, with Shinji Kagawa most at risk of dropping to the bench.
Amid much speculation about the striker’s future this week – and role within the side – Rooney will surely welcome a striking berth in east London. After all, with a new contract to negotiate this summer, the former Evertonian’s hand is hardly strengthened each time he is deployed as a part-time midfielder.
Jonny Evans could return to Ferguson’s line-up, but Paul Scholes is unlikely to be selected after missing the past three months of United’s campaign.
“We have no injuries from Sunday against Stoke,” Ferguson told MUTV. “It was a tough game, certainly. But there were no injuries and that is a blessing of course We have a good, strong squad. We took 20 players with us to Stoke and those 20 players will go with us again on Wednesday night.”
Meanwhile, West Ham welcome the Reds with Premier League safety almost certainly secured. Sam Allardyce’s side boasts a six point advantage over the bottom three, with a healthy goal difference advantage to boot. However, the 58-year-old manager is likely to be without a clutch of defenders for United’s visit, including James Tomkins, Winston Reid and George McCartney. Mark Noble and Joe Cole remain on the sidelines.
Still, with United’s prize firmly in sight few will bet against the visitors turning in the first strong performance since Madrid’s unlikely win at Old Trafford.
“I think you have to say they are as good as they have ever been because nobody normally wins the title so easily and by so big a margin, or has this much of a margin at this stage of the season,” adds Allardyce.
“It’s pretty scary what total they might actually finish with.”
That United has won the last eight league meetings against West Ham, scoring 22 goals and conceding just three in the process says much.
West Ham United v Manchester United – Premier League, Upton Park – 7.45pm, 17 April 2013 March 2013
West Ham (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen; Pogatetz, O’Brien, Collins, Demel; Jarvis, Nolan, Diame, O’Neil; Carroll, Vaz Te. Subs from: Henderson, Potts, Collison, Taylor, C Cole, Wellington, Maiga, Chamakh
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Jones, Evans, Vidić, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Welbeck; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Rafael, Ferdinand, Powell, Scholes, Anderson, Giggs, Nani, Kagawa, Hernández
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistants: R Ganfield, H Lennard
Fourth official: A Marriner.
West Ham: LWLWDD
Head to Head
Last 10: West Ham 1, United 8, Draw 1
Overall: West Ham 42, United 58, Draw 25
- The Hammers’ 1-1 draw at Southampton brought the Londoners a point closer to safety last weekend;
- Mark Noble has been a key player earning West Ham’s safety this season, boasting one of highest defensive contribution totals in the Hammers squad with 96;
- In a similar vein, defender James Collins has racked up an impressive 30 blocks this season.
- Meanwhile, Matt Jarvis has supplied 71 crosses this season – the 8th best in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index – but claims just two assists;
- Speculation surrounding Wayne Rooney’s future may be rife this week, but only three strikers have bettered the Scouser’s 599 successful passes in the opponent’s half this season – Luis Suarez, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez – while none surpasses his average rate of 3.13 minutes per successful pass;
- Shinji Kagawa’s five goals is the highest of any United midfielder this season, the result of a solid 75 per cent shot accuracy rate;
- Michael Carrick has amassed 944 successful passes in the opponent’s half and is rated as the second most successful tackler in the United squad behind Rio Ferdinand, having successfully completed 61.2 per cent of his 67 attempted challenges this season.