Manchester United aim to get their Premier League campaign off to a winning start when they host West Ham at Old Trafford on Sunday (16:00 BST, live on Sky Sports).
Jose Mourinho’s side went down 2-1 to Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup final on Tuesday. In the oppressive heat of Skopje, Madrid had the better of the first hour, securing a two-goal lead that United were unable to overturn despite a spirited push in the remainder.
The performance demonstrated that they still have a lot of work to do to re-establish themselves among the European elite, but there is first some catching up to do domestically. Man Utd won the EFL Cup and Europa League last season but had a more difficult time of it in the Premier League, where they finished sixth, seven points off the top four.
The fixture list has been relatively kind to them, with matches against sides who finished in the bottom half last season in each of their opening four fixtures, alongside encounters with all three newly promoted sides before the end of November. But they won their opening three matches last season only to win just two of their next 10, and they will need to make a good start and do a better job of maintaining that form this time around.
The manner in which Nemanja Matic performed on Tuesday certainly suggested that the midfield will be improved by his presence. The £40-million signing from Chelsea did some solid defensive work and was at the centre of United’s ball progression from midfield. Fellow new arrival Victor Lindelof had a harder time of things in defence, while Romelu Lukaku got on the scoresheet (on the rebound from a Matic shot) but otherwise made little impact.
Mourinho produced improvement last season but in a highly competitive top six that was insufficient to secure a direct route to Champions League football. Given the money spent this summer and last, a lot more will be expected this season. He himself has suggested that a top three finish should be the aim – anything less may make his position difficult to justify.
West Ham’s goals for the campaign are a little less ambitious but they will certainly be hoping for an improvement on last season, where they flirted with relegation for a time before eventually making their way up to respectable 11th-place finish, albeit with a full 17 points less than the season before. A place in the top half will be the minimum expectation.
Man Utd v West Ham Betting Odds from Bet365:
3/10 Man Utd
11/1 West Ham
The Hammers board have backed head coach Slaven Bilic by bringing in a number of players with Premier League experience. England goalkeeper Joe Hart has come in on loan, Pablo Zabaleta has signed on a free transfer from Manchester City to fill the problem right-back slot, while Marko Arnautovic and former United striker Javier Hernandez have been brought in from Stoke City and Bayer Leverkusen respectively to bolster the forward line.
It is a transfer policy that is likely to see an improved West Ham this season, but that has seen a lot of money spent on transfer fees and wages for players who will only provide relatively short-term solutions. It is difficult to see the Hammers pushing up to compete for the European places, so perhaps it was just last season’s brief threat of relegation that has spooked the board into spending big to ensure a continued Premier League presence.
With little future-proofing built into the club’s approach, Bilic has limited wriggle room. Just a solitary victory across six pre-season friendlies doesn’t provide a huge amount of encouragement for the campaign ahead and a good start will be required if Bilic’s position as one of the bookies’ favourites to be the first manager to depart isn’t to prove prophetic.
It is, however, unlikely that West Ham will begin the campaign with a victory at Old Trafford. Mourinho has never lost a Premier League opener, winning seven of his previous eight such fixtures, and his United side, while still far from perfect, have the necessary tools to outscore the Hammers and emerge victorious on Sunday.