It felt right, didn’t it? The Stretford End “sucked the ball in,” as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put it after Manchester United scored two late goals to beat Middlesbrough at Old Trafford. The intensity with which José Mourinho’s side attacked as the clock wound down drew memories of yesteryear. The rush of adrenaline as Anthony Martial equalised; the euphoria of that late Paul Pogba winner. Three points. Momentum firmly with the Reds.
Five Premier League wins in succession, unbeaten in all competitions throughout December, makes United the country’s in-form team, save for leaders Chelsea. It is a record that will be strongly tested as Mourinho’s team takes on West Ham United at the Olympic Stadium on Monday evening.
The teams played out two tough games in November, with United performing well in a frustrating league draw at Old Trafford, before comfortably dispatching the Hammers in the League Cup. In the intervening weeks Slaven Bilic’s side has found something of the form that saw the Croat’s team finish sixth in the Premier League last season. West Ham beat Swansea City 4-1 in Wales on Boxing Day before losing narrowly to champions Leicester City on Saturday.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It felt right, didn’t it? The Stratford End sucked the ball in again as United scored two late goals to beat Middlesbrough. The intensity with which Mourinho’s side attacked as the clock wound down drew memories of yesteryear.[/blockquote]
The momentum is United’s though. Victories at Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion were followed by an easy win over Sunderland at Old Trafford and Saturday’s last-gasp win. It is the latter that should set the fire under United’s campaign, with Mourinho’s team finding a level of intensity in the second half that has rarely been matched this season.
With Sir Alex Ferguson sat in the stands on his 75th birthday, Mourinho’s team might just have set a new benchmark for the Portuguese’s version of United.
“He deserves to come here and for people to remember the game not just for his 75th birthday but also for the kind of football we played and the fact that we managed to bring the fans to the pitch,” said Mourinho in the aftermath.
“In the last 20 minutes, the fans were on the pitch – they were not in the stands. And this is a credit to the players, who showed amazing character to go and go and go and go. This time we were successful and it’s three more points.”
Yet, amid the euphoria of late victory over Boro, the intensity of United’s first half did not match that of the finish. Had the home side taken earlier opportunities – Mourinho’s side created 32 chances on the day – the game would have been won within the first 45. It is the kind of profligacy that has cost the Reds at times this season.
This time Mourinho’s side found a way. Martial’s smartly taken strike reflected the Frenchman’s best performance of the season. Perhaps he is “listening” to Mourinho, as the United manager would later demand, and not his agent, who has been touting the youngster around Europe this winter.
Pogba’s winner and drive for much of the game underlined that the central midfielder is now the league’s best, perhaps the finest in Europe. More performances of that quality are required if Mourinho’s side is to claw its way back into European contention this season. Starting with a tough away fixture in east London.
United’s traveling fans might not number the 75,000 who urged the home side to find a goal on Saturday, but they will be vociferous.
“The fans just pushed us and we have to thank them every day because they gave us this energy,” said Pogba. “To be honest I was very tired and they gave me something else, another breath and I think that’s why I scored. I’m very happy for the win and I’m very glad that we make the fans happy.”
Bilic’s team suffered a difficult start to the season, not helped by crowd trouble at the Olympic Stadium, and there are still pockets of unrest in east London. The Hammers remain inconsistent and there are many supporters that rue the move away from Upton Park, despite the commercial benefits the owners tout.
The hosts beat United in the final game at Upton Park last season, although a marquee victory at the new stadium yet to materialise. Could Monday night offer supporters a reason to love a much-derided new venue?
Form says otherwise, but United has fallen short in east London more than once in recent seasons, and the Hammers are aiming to go unbeaten for the fifth successive league game against the visitors. To do that Bilic’s side might just have to score more than once, a feat achieved only once in nine home league matches at the new stadium.
Fatigue will play a significant part in east London, although Mourinho made five changes for Middlesbrough’s visit that should see his side the freshest of the teams on Monday. With United facing Championship side Reading in the FA Cup next weekend, the Reds will be close to full strength at the Olympic Stadium. West Ham, with a smaller squad and a tough away fixture behind them at Leicester, faces at test of stamina as well as quality.
“It’s a challenge for everybody but Chelsea, as they play only on the 4th; Tottenham play tomorrow and then on the 4th,” said Mourinho. “For us and West Ham it’s the same – difficult. Middlesbrough play at 12 o’clock, so less than 48 hours. It’s very hard, especially when you see the intensity of this game; you can imagine that people need to rest, but there is no time to rest, so let’s go to London and enjoy the game against West Ham and try to get the points.”
West Ham subs from: Adrián, Arbeloa Fernandes, Lanzini, Feghouli, Obiang, Fletcher, Quina, Masuaku, Sakho, Byram
United subs from: Romero, Smalling, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Fellaini, Schneiderlin, Mata, Rashford, Lingard, Young, Depay
Michael Carrick could make a return after missing United’s victory over Middlesbrough with an illness. Club captain Wayne Rooney is definitely out, while United has been denied a request for Eric Bailly to play. The Ivorian joins up with his national team for the African Cup of Nations on Monday and is unlikely to return before February.
At the back Chris Smalling is likely to make way despite a more positive outing against Boro. The Englishman has suffered a mixed campaign but could do little to prevent the visitors’ well-worked opener on Saturday. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo are likely to resume a successful partnership in central defence.
Carrick’s return could come at Marouane Fellaini’s expense, with the Belgian noticeably slowing down United’s passing at the weekend. Juan Mata’s introduction, along with Marcus Rashford, quickened the Reds’ passing and attacking output. Both are likely to find a place on the bench though, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Martial reprising a dynamic attacking front three.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Long, A Holmes
Fourth official: P Tierney
West Ham 1-2 United