The EFL Cup is seldom of interest to teams challenging for the title or threatened by relegation. Reserved for teams looking towards some early season silverware or clubs with little else to focus on in the season, it is a competition that can bring together some bizarre matchups with even odder results.
Manchester United and West Ham are two of this season’s greatest underachievers. Where the Red Devils believed this would be the season where they returned towards the very top of the league – as we all did – the Irons were expected to be bobbing along in the top half of the table, at the very least. Their eyes were probably on a late surge towards the European spots. In reality, Manchester United and West Ham are in mid-table and a relegation fight respectively. Both teams have has similar weaknesses too (the most prominent being an inability to finish chances).
When they faced off on Sunday afternoon, expectation for Manchester United was high after another positive performance in the Europa League. But a curious team selection from Jose Mourinho yet again, with Anthony Martial completed excluded from the matchday squad, led to another disappointing couple of hours for the Old Trafford public. As a result, Manchester United are now closer to the relegation zone than they are to third-placed Manchester City. If they are not already in crisis, they are close.
West Ham, meanwhile, begun a challenging run of fixtures with a resolute performance, riding their luck along the way. Still in the sapping heat of the relegation battle, though, Slaven Bilic’s side have won just three of their opening 13 Premier League games – there’s still pressure on the Croatian’s shoulders, just as you would expect for any manager in his position.
So, where does this leave either club ahead of their rematch in the EFL Cup?
Manchester United host West Ham this week with the prospect of another home failure not worth considering for Mourinho. A positive performance on Sunday could have given room for rotation in the EFL Cup, but amplifies the potential consequences of any slip up. The inevitable comparisons to David Moyes are continuing and, whatever your view point, it is getting harder to justify Mourinho’s decision-making and the performances of this Manchester United team. So, for the home side, a positive result is now a necessity.
For the Hammers, victory would be a kind release from the poor start to the season, at least. Other than that, Bilic might see it as an opportunity to goad some form out of his underachieving summer signings. Having had their difficulties with injuries earlier this season, the Hammers will surely be wary of losing key players in a cup competition. And, despite only taking one point from the two games, the performances against Tottenham and against United at the weekend will give Bilic reason to believe that results will improve. Progression in the EFL Cup would be a bonus for West Ham, but they certainly have far less to lose.
Mourinho and Manchester United need a victory. Lifting some silverware, even if the rest of the season is a catastrophe, will at least buy Mourinho some time. West Ham’s performances, if not results, have taken an upwards turn that changes this game for them. As this is, perhaps, distraction from the woes of the Premier League, they are a danger to Manchester United’s entire season.