There is such thing as magic on a football pitch. Winston Reid’s late header proved the winning goal against Manchester United in the final match at the Boleyn Ground. It could have been scripted, the way events turned out then.
Against the Red Devils to start the 2017/18 season, there could be a certain bit of charm in the air again. West Ham’s marquee striker, Javier Hernandez, has the chance to score once again at Old Trafford when he faces off against his former club.
But expectations for the Hammers to earn three points to start the season transcends magic and verges closer to lunacy. After another lackluster preseason – including a draw against German fourth division side Altona 93 and a 3-0 handling by Manchester City in Iceland – will the Hammers be prepared to perform in top gear?
Manchester United added Romelu Lukaku to their strike force this summer and, yes, you all know what that means. Lukaku has found the net against the Irons in nine of his 10 matches while wearing an Everton kit. After his £90 million transfer this summer, Lukaku has the chance to start off with his new team in good form.
Manager Jose Mourinho also added Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic. The Serbian will likely start besides Paul Pogba and take pressure off Pogba – allowing for more creativity from the Frenchman by covering defensive duties.
For more on how Manchester United looks, read Brace The Hammers’ Q&A with Busby Babe writer Andi Thomas here.
The Hammers finally have their man. Hernandez is fit and ready to start. Chicharito brings an ability to run channels and find space in the box to put away chances. If Andy Carroll were fit, it would be a perfect pairing. But as the Englishman is still suffering from a groin injury, it will have to wait.
Instead, manager Slaven Bilic will likely pair the Mexican international with Andre Ayew and Marko Arnautovic. With Michail Antonio out for a match or two, Ayew has a shot to establish himself as a regular with a good showing in the first fixture. He scored in preseason, too, against Altona 93.
Arnautovic, wearing Dimitri Payet’s old number 27, is a different player than the Frenchman. But Arnautovic has the chance to immediately wipe the misgiving surrounding the number with a professional performance. The Austrian has already scored his first goal for West Ham in preseason against Werder Bremen, and the Hammers will hope it’s just the start.
With Diafra Sakho sidelined as well, it’s possible Toni Martinez finds himself on the bench. The 20-year-old striker impressed during preseason, scoring twice for the Hammers.
Both Manuel Lanzini and Cheikhou Kouyate are unlikely to feature in West Ham’s season opener. The Hammers will get on fine with Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble in the center of the pitch, but without Lanzini in the attacking midfield, West Ham could lack creativity in feeding passes through to Hernandez.
In his stead could be Edimilson Fernandez, the 21-year-old Swiss midfielder. He struggled during preseason, but proved last year he can be a reliable option when counted upon in multiple positions, from midfield to wingback.
Obiang is a must-start each week after a breakout campaign last year. As a holding midfielder, he proved excellent defensively, but he also showed flashes of attacking prowess. He can link with Noble, who may be in the last year of earning solid playtime. If rumors are true surrounding the signing of William Carvalho from Sporting CP, the end could be nearer for Mr. West Ham.
Bilic must decide between a multitude of players on the defensive front. Playing four at the back, with new-signing Pablo Zabaleta a lock at right back and Arthur Masuaku beating out Aaron Cresswell for the left back role, Bilic needs two center backs.
Winston Reid earns one of the spots, but the decision between Jose Fonte and Angelo Ogbonna is tough. It should go to Ogbonna, though, who had success alongside of the New Zealand international in the past. Last year, Fonte proved slow in certain scenarios. Ogbonna has the giddy-up needed to keep scoring a minimum against a pacy Manchester United side.
Masuaku proved during preseason his attacking ability. Now, the 23-year-old needs to play lockdown defense to be the total fullback package.
Joe Hart, on loan from Manchester City, should make his competitive debut for the Hammers. A good outing for the England international is key to prevent a future dilemma between the sticks, as Adrian is still at West Ham looking to fight for his place. Competition is never a bad thing, though, and if Hart feels extra pressure to perform since there are other options, that’s fine.
Prediction: Manchester United 3-1 West Ham
Chicharito can make headlines and sell more jerseys by bagging a goal against his former team, but don’t hold out hope for much more in the match. Without key players such as Lanzini, Kouyate, Antonio and super-sub Carroll, the Hammers will lack firepower around Hernandez. Also, with Lukaku expected to make his competitive debut, expect to concede a goal or two.