Before West Ham Utd took to the Old Trafford turf on Sunday (March 14), most supporters – and a handful of the vocal travelling contingent – would have taken a draw in this FA Cup quarter final tie.
Bring them back to the Boleyn, do a number on Louis van Gaal’s troubled crew and make it a party night in east London for the last ever cup tie in E13 – that was the thinking.
And that was the nature of the play in an event-free first half where both sides, neighbouring each other in the Premier League parried and jostled without much commitment or penetration.
But by the end of the match, a draw seemed like the least the Irons deserved and a last gasp equaliser came as a crushing blow.
Between the sublime moment Dimitri Payet stunned Manchester with an inch perfect free kick in the 68th minute, to the second Anthony Martial retrieved the game in the 83rd, wearers of the Claret and Blue were plotting their trip to Wembley for the semis, fancying themselves to go all the way in a season where the wind has been at their backs.
While talented Martial cost the Manchester side £36million, the 9,000 fans were keen to point out – “We’ve Got Payet, Dimitri Payet” – a snip at £10million when he could be plying his trade for Nou Camp riches.
So the dream rolls on – the beer sits on ice while fans reflect on a match that saw Slaven Bilic uncharacteristically tetchy with the referee’s decisions. He claimed that Martin Atkinson cost them that last four place with two “crucial” decisions.
Atkinson rejected appeals for a penalty after a Marcos Rojo challenge on Payet and failed to spot a push on goalkeeper Darren Randolph in the build-up to the equaliser.
Bilic said: “I don’t want to spoil the game talking about the referees, because overall, he did a good job. But there have been a couple of situations, crucial ones that go against us. For me it should have been a penalty on Dimitri Payet. The equaliser, it was a foul by Schweinsteiger on Randolph. I am also a bit gutted for that.”
But Bilic is up for the replay. “Manchester United are a different team when they play away and don’t have that confidence,” he said.
“Here, it is very hard to play with 75,000 fans and this atmosphere. It is going to be a tough game, but I fancy us because we’re going to be even more confident.
“We could have held on for 1-0 and on counter-attacks I was expecting to create one, two or three more clear-cut chances. I’m not over the moon but it means we are moving in a good direction.”
Bilic said that the changing room was quiet after the match. The team had pushed on for a second goal rather than consolidating their advantage which gave pause for thought.
Goalkeeper Randolph told the club’s website : “It is going to be a great atmosphere for the replay and the standout moments for me this year atmosphere wise have been the Liverpool and Tottenham games.
“It is going to be a special night and we fancy our chances against anybody. We are all looking forward to it.
“We are still only 90 minutes from playing at Wembley and it is the last ever cup match at the Boleyn Ground so it is going to be another special occasion.”
The Hammers’ next game is on Saturday, away to Chelsea in the Premier League