As calendars flip over to April, the title run in begins in earnest. Manchester United begin the countdown with a thorough examination in prospect looming at Upton Park, the infamous graveyard of a previous title tilt.
Manchester United have bitter memories of Upton Park as they lost out on the title on the final day of the 1994/95 season when they could only manage a 1-1 draw. With eventual champions Blackburn Rovers losing to Liverpool on the final day, a win would have handed United a then historic third Premier League crown. In hindsight a win would have marked the midway point of a still unprecedented five consecutive titles, but a series of near misses in the dying minutes ensured their grip on the title slipped away. Understandably the result rankled with fans of the Red Devils, a disappointment the Hammers are all too happy to revisit, but the Londoners have their own reasons for loathing Saturday’s opponents.
Before West Ham’s schadenfreude in 1995, it was United, and particularly Paul Ince, who made the blood boil. Ince, a lifelong West Ham supporter was pictured wearing a United shirt whilst still under contract with the Hammers, as tabloids leaked the photograph before the deal to take him to Old Trafford had been finalised. Once a hero of the Boleyn Ground, Ince became a fallen idol as the Upton Park faithful consistently showered him with torrents of abuse – a vendetta that persists beyond his playing days and into his current managerial career.
Despite following in the footsteps of Ince, Carlos Tevez remains a popular figure in East London. His solitary goal on Survival Sunday ensured West Ham had more final day joy against United as the 1-0 win kept the Hammers up in 2007. Tevez’s transfer that summer coincided with a decrease in animosity between the clubs, and with it West Ham’s fortunes. The Hammers followed up that famous win with another in December 2007, but that was the last time they took a point from United in the league as the Red Devils head into Saturday’s encounter with the ominous record of six straight wins, scoring 17 and conceding just one. With United topping the table and the Hammers hovering above the relegation zone it is hard to see them bucking this trend.
Yet, following the form guide provides more than a glimmer of hope for Avram Grant’s men. The Hammers have notched 15 goals in their last six matches in all competitions – a run of form that has largely coincided with the availability of Thomas Hitzlsperger. The German has played up his side’s chances, drawing inspiration from the shock 4-0 Carling Cup win in November: “If
Far from downplaying the task ahead of them, Sir Alex Feguson stressed: “These are must-win games, in the sense that every time you get three points, it’s another step closer to the finish line.” With a threadbare defence facing a team in rich goalscoring form, United will face a stern test of their title credentials, even if the stakes aren’t as high as in 1995.