LONDON (AFP) – Manchester United have the glinting incentive of a Champions League place in their sights as they prepare for an emotion-charged Premier League contest at West Ham United on Tuesday.
Manchester City s 2-2 draw with Arsenal at the weekend means that United can pip their cross-town rivals to a top-four spot if they beat West Ham and then prevail at home to Bournemouth on Sunday.
An FA Cup final date against Crystal Palace follows, suddenly making United manager Louis van Gaal s horizon a great deal sunnier, but with West Ham playing their last ever game at their venerable Boleyn Ground home, United can expect to face ultra-motivated opponents.
Speaking before City s draw with Arsenal, Van Gaal said: “It s still very tough.
“Now we have to play away to West Ham United and we ve seen already in the quarter-final of the FA Cup (when United won 2-1) that it s not so easy. So we have to repeat that win.
“West Ham are a very good team — it s not for nothing they re in the top six of the table. We were lucky in the cup.
“I think we deserved to win, but we were lucky West Ham had a goal disallowed in the last minute.”
Marcus Rashford was United s inspiration on their last trip to the Boleyn Ground in April, opening the scoring with a fine individual effort, and the 18-year-old striker is expected to return to the starting XI after being rested for Saturday s 1-0 win at Norwich City.
Centre-back Daley Blind should return as well, having also been rested at Carrow Road, but forward Anthony Martial and full-back Matteo Darmian are doubts.
Martial was withdrawn from the starting XI against Norwich after complaining of muscular discomfort in the warm-up, while Darmian was stretchered off with an ankle problem.
United s FA Cup win ended West Ham s hopes of bowing out at the Boleyn Ground with a piece of silverware and the east London club s chances of a top-four finish are also effectively over following Saturday s unexpected 4-1 defeat at home to Swansea City.
– Going to be special –
It was West Ham s first home defeat in the league since August — a run of 15 games — and left a Europa League berth as their only realistic target for the end of the season.
West Ham slipped out of the qualifying places to seventh following Southampton s 2-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday and Liverpool are now just a point behind them after winning 2-0 at home to Watford.
Seventh place could yield a Europa League spot at the season s end, but only if Manchester City finish in the top four and United beat Palace in the FA Cup final and finish in the top five.
“I keep saying the gap between us and the top four is bigger than the gap between us and Southampton and Liverpool below,” West Ham manager Slaven Bilic said, prior to Southampton s win at White Hart Lane.
“That s the gap that worries me and that s the gap I m still concentrating on. But we have a game on Tuesday and we are still in a brilliant position.
“We want to finish high. With two games to go we are talking about Europe. It s in our hands. It s there for us.”
Win, lose or draw, Tuesday s game is sure to be an occasion soaked with nostalgia as West Ham bid farewell to the 35,016-seat Boleyn Ground, which has been the club s home since 1904.
Exciting times lie ahead with an imminent move to the 60,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, up the road in Stratford, but for fans, local residents, staff and players, leaving the club s ancestral home will be an almighty wrench.
“We re itching to get back out there and put things right, of course we are,” said captain Mark Noble, whose West Ham career began in July 2003.
“It s the last game ever at this place and it s going to be special.”