Louis van Gaal’s knack for escapism has been a pronounced feature of the season but on a wild night in east London, when West Ham United yelled farewell to their home of 112 years, the Manchester United manager could not summon the trick when he needed it so sorely.
The equation had been simple enough. Win here and, with Manchester City stumbling, an unlikely shot at the redemption of a fourth-placed finish would be his. It has felt for a long time that Van Gaal needs qualification for the Champions League to keep himself alive at Old Trafford.
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Van Gaal has used up a clutch of lifelines during what has been a trying season and, for a period in the second half, he could finally enjoy control of his destiny. West Ham should have been out of sight at half-time, such was their dominance of the first period but they were not and, when Anthony Martial conjured a pair of finishes on the counterattack, the result that Van Gaal craved was on.
But this was West Ham’s party and nobody was going to spoil it. The practical consideration for them was a victory to fire their Europa League qualification hopes. But this evening was about much more than that. Their supporters shouted themselves hoarse and there was delirium when they got the late goals that their overall performance deserved.
United’s vulnerability in the air was exposed when first Michail Antonio headed past David de Gea from Dimitri Payet’s ball in and then Winston Reid powered home from another Payet assist. For the visitors, there was dismay. West Ham partied long into the night.
United had arrived late, as they did at Tottenham Hotspur last month, and it had not been a pretty entrance. As their team bus was snarled up on Green Street, it was pelted with bottles and other missiles. On the upside, the reinforced windows did their job but, more serious, were the chaotic scenes around them. Briefly, there was panic. Parents lifted their children on to their shoulders. Eye witnesses talked of a crush.
The decision had been taken to open the turnstiles later than usual and, with many more people than normal just showing up outside, it did not take a genius to work out that there might be congestion. The Football Association is to investigate.
It was one feature of an evening that was charged with emotion, and footballing significance – not least for Van Gaal, who has seemingly been on the brink since December. That he was still standing at the kick-off felt remarkable but, all of a sudden, a golden opportunity had opened up for him.
His team had to seize the occasion but it was West Ham who flew out of the blocks. The hot atmosphere drove them. United were all over the place in the early running and West Ham might have been further in front by the midway point of the first half.
There was the moment on 20 minutes when Daley Blind, mindful of Sakho to his left, stayed deep as his fellow defenders pushed out. West Ham played through the centre with ease and there was Andy Carroll, one-on-one against De Gea. The goalkeeper saved.
Antonio bundled the ball into the net at the end of West Ham’s next move and launched into his gyrating celebratory dance before he noticed that the flag had gone up. The deflected cross from the right had curled out and then back in. With Carroll’s aerial presence causing problems and the smaller creative players – particularly Manuel Lanzini – buzzing around him, West Ham called the tune. It was one-way traffic.
The breakthrough had come when Aaron Cresswell slipped a pass up to Manuel Lanzini, who was in yards of space in the inside left channel, and Sakho dropped smartly off Blind for the cut-back. Sakho shot first time and his effort flicked off Blind to spin beyond De Gea and into the corner.
United’s travelling supporters watched through their fingers. Wayne Rooney tried to stabilise his team from a central midfield role, seeking to chisel out any kind of foothold with some possession, but it was West Ham who brought the blood and thunder.
Slaven Bilic howled when Payet jinked inside, after Mark Noble had robbed Marcos Rojo to feed him, only to balloon his shot high. Rooney was barracked for getting into Mike Dean’s ear at half-time but his team-mates looked as though they could not get off the field quickly enough.
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West Ham come from behind to win a thriller in the last game at Upton Park that also involved Man Utd’s coach being damaged by missiles beforehand
It felt like a reprieve for Van Gaal that he was confronted only by a 1-0 deficit at the interval. He and his players sought to make the most of it. The equaliser came from United’s first chance of any note and it followed a bit of tomfoolery from the West Ham fans behind De Gea’s goal. They refused to give the ball back to him but they did when another one had been supplied for him.
De Gea promptly drove United up the field with a long clearance and it was surprising to see how West Ham allowed Marcus Rashford the space to wait for the overlapping Juan Mata, before releasing him. This counter from the visitors packed a punch. Mata crossed from the right and Martial tapped home. Game on. De Gea turned to pump his fists and his hips proactively at the fans behind him. A bottle was thrown in his direction.
Still, West Ham created chances. Payet curled wide, Sakho sent a stooping header over the crossbar and Carroll saw a header cleared off the line by Martial. It was breathless stuff. But while Van Gaal’s team needed only one goal, the danger bubbled.
They got it when Rooney, showing a burst that many feared was beyond him, drove the visitors forward, feeding Rashford, who moved it on to Martial. He burned around Winston Reid and, with Darren Randolph expecting a cross, he exposed him at the near post. Van Gaal sensed a smash-and-grab win. West Ham had other ideas.