Events at the weekend have only elevated the significance of Wednesday’s FA Cup quarterfinal replay between West Ham and Manchester United at Upton Park. After both teams dropped points and Manchester City claimed a victory, West Ham and Manchester United now have only a slim chance of making it into the top four and sealing a Champions League berth. The focus will switch to the FA Cup.
For Manchester United, there is particular pressure to to keep their hopes alive in the competition. Having already been dumped out of both the Champions League and Louis van Gaal’s side suffered a 3-0 defeat at Tottenham on Sunday to leave them four points back of fourth place with six matches of the Premier League season remaining.
Even lifting the FA Cup and ending a trophy drought that stretches back three seasons and to Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement may well not be enough to save Louis van Gaal’s job. However, it would maintain some sense of optimism moving toward the end of a season to forget. And defender Phil Jones, who is close to a return to fitness after more than three months on the sidelines, has not shied away from the significance of Wednesday’s fixture.
“It’s another massive game on Wednesday,” he said, according to The Guardian. “It’s probably a defining moment in our season so we need to make sure we win that game and that we’re at Wembley.
“It’s been a difficult season. For 60 minutes against Spurs I thought we looked comfortable but then they score three quick goals and we’re out of the game. We’ve got to concentrate on Wednesday night now, it’s a massive game at Upton Park and we have got to win. We have got to win.”
It will be a big night for West Ham, too. Although they fought back from 2-0 down against Arsenal to take the lead through an Andy Carroll hat-trick, a final score of 3-3 meant they dropped five points behind Manchester City, while also missing a chance to close the gap on third-placed Arsenal.
But regardless of their Champions League hopes, Wednesday’s encounter, set up by a 1-1 draw in the first match between the sides exactly a month ago, was always going to be a significant occasion. With the club set to move into the Olympic Stadium for next season and the FA Cup semifinals and final to be held at Wembley, the meeting with Manchester United will be West Ham’s final FA Cup match at Upton Park, also known as the Boleyn Ground.
“It’s the final FA Cup game at the Boleyn ground, it’s Manchester United, its not a fourth round its a quarterfinal, it cant be bigger,” West Ham manager Slaven Bilic said in his pre-match press conference. “So we are, of course, fully motivated and want to go through. It’s a massive game. It’s massive for them, it’s massive for us.”
Bilic will be without striker Diafra Sakho through a knee injury, but will have defender James Collins back available. And Bilic will again be able to call upon the services of Dimitri Payet, whose starring first season in the Premier League was recognized on Wednesday by being named on the shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year award.
Manchester United, meanwhile, are set to have Wayne Rooney back in the squad after the club captain played an hour for the Under-21 side on Monday. Jones also stepped up his comeback in the same fixture, putting him in the running for a first-team return.
Prediction: While both teams dropped points at the weekend, West Ham had far more to be encouraged about in the quality of their performance. Bilic’s side are playing with much greater purpose than Manchester United right now, and the return of Rooney is unlikely to alter the insipidness that has characterized the play of Van Gaal’s side this season. In front of what is sure to be a pumped up Upton Park crowd, West Ham must be favorites to make the semifinals.
Predicted score: West Ham 2-1 Manchester United
Kickoff time: 2 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 2