LONDON, England, April 16 – Having returned to winning ways at the weekend, Manchester United can close to within four points of the Premier League title with victory at West Ham United on Wednesday.
United’s morale took a blow after last week’s defeat at home to Manchester City, but Sunday’s 2-0 success at Stoke City saw Alex Ferguson’s side re-establish a 15-point lead over their derby rivals.
It left them seven points from an unprecedented 20th English league crown and they could even capture the title as early as Sunday if City slip up against Wigan Athletic and Tottenham Hotspur this week.
However, before that can happen, United must prevail at Upton Park, and the boisterous east London stadium has not always been a happy hunting ground for the men from Old Trafford.
United had title bids derailed there in both 1992 and 1995; the latter occasion a game in which home goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko produced save after save to deny United the goal they needed to pip Blackburn Rovers to the Premier League trophy on the season’s final day.
More recently, United were given a searching examination in an FA Cup third-round game in January, when the visitors needed an injury-time goal from Robin van Persie to take the tie to a replay.
All in all, United have won on just three of their last seven visits to West Ham in all competitions, including a chastening 4-0 thrashing in a League Cup tie in November 2010.
At least van Persie has recovered his scoring touch, having gone 10 games without a goal before finding the net from the penalty spot in the second half at Stoke.
Ferguson praised United for their “battling performance” at the Britannia Stadium and captain Nemanja Vidic believes a similarly committed display will be required on Wednesday.
“Now it’s West Ham and we have to play well again,” the Serbian told United’s in-house television station, MUTV.
“They play in a similar style to Stoke – we’re going to have long balls and set-pieces to deal with.”
The game at Stoke saw Wayne Rooney deployed in a midfield role, but although his performance was praised by Ferguson, the England striker has hinted that he would prefer to return to a more advanced position at West Ham.
“I’ve played there (in midfield) a few times this season,” he said.
“You have to think. As a centre-forward, you want to be as close to goal as possible to try and score.
“In midfield you have to hold yourself back at times and try and help the team keep the ball and move up the pitch.”
West Ham appear to have secured their top-flight status for next season, with Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Southampton having taken them to within two points of the 40-point mark typically considered as a guarantee of survival.
Manager Sam Allardyce had previously refused to answer questions about his future at the club, but with the finishing line now in sight, he has revealed he is already making plans for next season.
“I wouldn’t be here if we weren’t playing in the Premier League next season,” he said.
“(But) we are going to be safe and playing in the Premier League next season so my planning will be done as quickly as possible and we’ll get on to the contract, which I’m sure I’m going to sign.”
Allardyce has several injury concerns in defence, with centre-back James Tomkins having joined Winston Reid and George McCartney in the treatment room after limping off at Southampton.
Ryan Giggs and Tom Cleverley will hope to return to the United starting XI after being rested at Stoke, while Ferguson must also decide whether or not to restore Rooney to his attacking line.