West Ham-Manchester United: Previewing the First of Two London Clashes

Nathan LoweAnalyst IMarch 31, 2011

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 29:  Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson speaks to the media during a press conference to announced that Barclay's English Premier League leader Manchester United will return as the AT&T MLS All-Star Game opponent on March 29, 2011 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Now that no one has to scratch their heads trying to figure out if or why they should find international matches relevant or provocative, our collective focus returns to where it prefers: the top flights of domestic club leagues around Europe.

The dynamic ahead of Manchester United's travel to West Ham United on Saturday is shared across different European nation-states; a superclub topping the competitive table against a relegation straggler nearing its bottom.

Both sides need the points, a phenomenon unknown to American sports leagues whose worst teams mail it in early in hopes of "earning" blue-chip draft picks; no relegation threat for them, no incentive for their paying fans.

But fans of both sides Saturday in London will be fever-pitched. With the easily lamentable international break in the rear-view, the season's run-in begins now in earnest.

West Ham are currently in 17th place, separated from the relegation zone only by goal difference. Man United top the table on 63 points, five above Arsenal, seven above surging Chelsea, though each have a game in hand on the Red Devils.

Man United have won the last five meetings away in the league to West Ham without conceding. But it bears noting that United's first lost this season was in the Carling Cup against the Hammers, a 4-0 beating back in January.

Normally I'd say that the revenge factor, and Man Utd's recent dominance over the Londoners domestically, points firmly to an away victory. But the Hammers have been in good form lately.

Avram Grant's side are unbeaten in their last four EPL matches. At the very least they're a plucky side. At their worst, they're wholly inconsistent.

With Thomas Hitzlsperger and Scotty Parker healthy, the core of their midfield is robust. Factor in Demba Ba, Carlton Cole or even Piquionne, and the London United are a good look going forward.

Particularly against what may be a makeshift Manchester United defense.

Alex Ferguson was very coy about his side's injury liabilities in an exclusive interview with ESPN Soccernet.

When asked about his defensive options, the Scotsman said: ""We've had long-term injuries to Rio Ferdinand, young Rafael has had injuries, Wes Brown, all the defenders have carried injuries right through the season.

"The only one who has actually kept fit has been Chris Smalling, who has been available for every game and he has been absolutely outstanding, he's been absolutely brilliant."

In other words, he's not telling. But Nemanja Vidic started for Serbia on Tuesday, so United will at least have their most important player at Upton Park. Fergie isn't counting any chickens before they hatch, though.

"We expect a tough game at West Ham," he said. "Any team down the bottom doesn't want to go down because the only place you make money is in the Premier League."

Given that the Red Devils have an arguably more important fixture the following Tuesday, away again in London to Chelsea, the supposed gap between both United's for Saturday's early kick-off becomes a little smaller.

Paul Scholes should be very well-rested and sharp, though, and hopefully Darren Fletcher has shrugged off any niggling injuries to enable Ferguson to field his best center midfield.

Nani and Valencia should be good-to-go. Rooney was lucky to travel home early from international duty. Javier Hernandez had to fly back from the western hemisphere and, considering Dimitar Berbatov's retirement from his national side, he'd be expected to sit in favor of the Bulgarian partnering Rooney at Upton Park.

Chris Smalling should partner Vidic with Pat Evra and an arbitrary right-back completing a strong side for the visitors.

If the league leaders drop points at Upton Park Saturday, the media would probably rationalize it as a result of the looming Champions League knockout first-leg Tuesday, and they probably wouldn't be wrong.

Prediction: West Ham 0, Man United 2