1. Hammers say goodbye in style
It couldn’t have ended any other way, really. The final game at the Boleyn Ground finished with a stirring 3-2 comeback victory for West Ham over Manchester United, who now require a favour on the final day to secure Champions League football at the expense of Manchester City. After United gave themselves a chance by going 2-1 up, they imploded as the ground around them exploded.
The atmosphere around the Boleyn was supposed to be rather jovial, a celebration of West Ham’s farewell to their home for over a century, but the scenes before the game weren’t quite so upbeat.
Bottles were among the objects thrown at the United team bus, causing kickoff to be delayed by 45 minutes. West Ham co-chairman David Sullivan seemed to blame Man United for putting a wrinkle in his club’s big day, but he will surely change his mind when he sees the footage from outside the ground, where the atmosphere was thick with intimidation rather than celebration.
Inside, though, it was spine-tingling, emotional and extremely loud. The game started, perhaps understandably, with one team playing to the occasion and another overwhelmed by it. West Ham sprinted out of the blocks while the visitors ambled, trying to play at that measured, somnambulant pace that Louis van Gaal demands.
It is a tempo that has provided much frustration before in that their attacks often go nowhere, and do so very slowly at that, but this time it was damaging because the visitors’ defence was overwhelmed. Man United could have been three or four behind in the opening 20 minutes, but they went into the break in arrears only to Diafra Sakho’s 10-minute goal.
Van Gaal’s defence has been one of few positives this season, but it failed him throughout the night. Sakho struck after Aaron Cresswell played the ball through to Manuel Lanzini, played onside by a defensive line that resembled the results of a polygraph test, and his cross was swept home via a slight deflection off Daley Blind.
The visitors upped their game somewhat after the break and produced a goal with their first bit of good football; Juan Mata did fine work down the right and squared across for Anthony Martial, up to that point something of a passenger, to side-foot into the empty net.
Martial then produced a piece of superb play, racing down the left, outstripping the West Ham defence, and taking advantage of an error by keeper Darren Randolph at his near post to give Man United the lead. At that point it looked like the visitors were determined to make a fine mess of the narrative.
However, a pair of headers sealed the result craved by the home fans who, by this stage, were in a state of virtual mania as they roared their side on for one final time at the old ground. First, Michail Antonio drifted beyond a static defence to glance into the corner, and then Winston Reid headed home the winner, via an uncharacteristic weak hand by David de Gea.
The fans behind the goal went wild, to the point that it almost felt like a demolition crew wouldn’t be required to bring the ground down ahead of the move to the Olympic Stadium. A fizzing, heady evening ended the way they wanted it to.
2. Martial impresses amid Man United’s malaise
Starting Martial was an understandable gamble by Van Gaal, since the Frenchman had just passed a fitness test for a hamstring injury before the game. But Man United are a fairly one-paced team even with him in the side. Without him they are even more so.
However, in the first half Martial looked unfit and not exactly keen to break into a sprint, perhaps subconsciously worried that a full-pelt dash could cause his hamstring to twang again and he could kiss the European Championships goodbye.
Martial against Michail Antonio, rather curiously selected again at right-back for West Ham — despite a fair amount of evidence that he’s not, to say the least, a natural defender — could have been pretty ugly for the home side, but in the first half the Man United man offered little.
That all changed after the break. Maybe Martial reasoned that everything was OK with his faulty muscle, because in the second half he was much livelier and displayed why, even though he was a late panic buy for United, he is among the best Premier League’s signings of the season.
Anthony Martial apart, it was another poor attacking display by Manchester United.
His first goal was a tap-in, a case of being there at the right time to finish off someone else’s good work, but the second was all him. Martial showed a devastating burst of pace to outstrip Reid and, even with the Hammers defender catching up with him and very nearly shoving him over, managed to retain enough composure to take advantage of Randolph, who left a huge gap at his near post.
The trouble is, that was pretty much it. One can only imagine Martial’s irritation and frustration as United’s defence, having one of their more shambolic evenings, contrived to concede and essentially throw all of that good work away.
United had two attacks to speak of, which resulted in two goals, but there was little beyond that. Mata again displayed why there is so much doubt over whether he has a place in this side, while Marcus Rashford was subdued. He might be the future, but based on this performance he isn’t quite the present.
If United don’t make the Champions League, it won’t be just because of this game, but their performance at West Ham’s farewell shindig showed all the worst elements of the season that has brought them to this point.
3. A fitting farewell
From the off, only one side looked like they need a win to claim a Champions League place — with the added bonus of embarrassing their neighbours and their shiny new manager — yet Man United looked like awkward guests at someone else’s party.
West Ham, on the other hand, looked as if they felt some sort of duty to play up to the occasion. The raucousness on the streets and in the stands was mirrored on the pitch, with Slaven Bilic’s side attacking the visitors with aggression and purpose.
The Hammers really should have been further ahead at the break and, at one stage, it looked as if their relative profligacy would be costly, as Man United equalised and then took the lead. Perhaps it was inevitable that after such a frantic start, the home side would dip a little; it was indeed their party and they found it impossible to maintain the energy they showed at the start.
But then came a second wind. The home players seemed carried by the sense of goodwill and passion from the stands, as if they couldn’t permit the last minutes of football at this venue to end in anything other than a victory.
After the final whistle, there were tears in Bilic’s eyes as the 30,000 present belted out “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” They’ll do so again at the Olympic Stadium, but you get the feeling it won’t quite be the same.