By Lewis Lesbrel
Who would have thought at the start of the season, that it would be Premier League newcomers Bournemouth who would have the fate of Manchester United and Manchester City’s Champions League qualification hopes resting in their hands?
Few would also have predicted the prospect of Eddie Howe’s side doing the double over Manchester United. But after a rollercoaster of a Premier League season, that is exactly the situation Cherries find themselves in.
Bournemouth travel to Old Trafford on Sunday assured of Premier League survival, and will be looking to end their incredible season on a high note. United on the other hand have it all to play for, with their hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League hanging on by a thread.
The calculations are simple: Louis Van Gaal’s side have to win and hope that Manchester City lose away at Swansea. Due to their far superior goal difference, City only need to draw on Sunday to qualify for next seasons Champions League, leaving United to settle for the Europa League.
It is undoubtedly a massive occasion for Manchester United, and Howe feels his Bournemouth side will relish the high stakes situation: “It’s nice to be involved in games that mean something. The last few games have been difficult for us because we are not a team who has been used to not having that competitive edge.
“For the last few seasons there has always been something on every game and we have become accustomed to it and embraced the pressure.”
Cherries are a better side on their travels, and given that they have the second worst home record in the Premier League, they have had to be.
A poor run of form has seen the Cherries slump to 16th position in the Premier League table, with their only win in their last seven games coming against bottom of the table Aston Villa.
Yet a win for Eddie Howe’s men could see them jump up to 12th if other results go their way, and Howe insists they won’t be rolling over: “The players don’t need motivating for this one. The final league game of the season is a big one for us and I’m sure our players are all chomping at the bit for this game.
“I’m expecting a good atmosphere, I’m expecting a team that wants to win and we have to be at our best levels to win. I think whenever you go to Old Trafford you have to be at your best levels.”
Cast your minds back to early December and you’ll recall a historic day for Cherries, not only for reasons on the pitch. Bournemouth recorded a massive 2-1 win over the Red Devils, but the game will forever be remembered for the incredible strength and bravery shown by midfielder Harry Arter.
Only two days after his fiancé had given birth to their stillborn daughter, Arter managed 86 minutes before departing from the field to a standing ovation from all sections of the crowd.
A tremendous team display was only to be outshone by Arter’s courage and man of the match performance, a sentiment that is shared by his manager: “The United game will always have that link with Harry and his personal situation. My memories of that day immediately go back to that moment and how well the squad united. It was a really special and emotional night.”
Cast your minds back even further, all the way back to 1984, to find Bournemouth’s only other victory over United. That was an FA Cup third round tie in which third division Cherries upset the applecart to run out as 2-0 winners.
The remaining seven meetings between these two clubs ended with five wins for United and two draws.
As far as team news is concerned, United will be without long term absentees Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee) and Luke Shaw (broken leg), with Adnan Januzaj, Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young also set to miss out. Van Gaal’s men will also be without Marouane Fellaini, who is serving the final leg of his three match suspension.
There are no fresh injury concerns from last weekend’s draw with West Brom for Eddie Howe ahead of the trip to Old Trafford. Adam Smith (groin), Sylvain Distin (back) and Tyrone Mings (knee) are all ruled out.
Manchester United 1-0 AFC Bournemouth
Despite throwing away a 1-2 lead to lose 3-2 at West Ham on Tuesday, I expect Manchester United to do the business on Sunday.
They have only conceded eight goals at Old Trafford all season, and I think Bournemouth may find it difficult to break them down in what is arguably United’s most important game of the season.
They are however vulnerable from set pieces, something which was demonstrated both on Tuesday night and in the reverse fixture at the Vitality Stadium back in December.
Eddie Howe’s men may get some joy in that department, but Bournemouth have failed to score in all four of their previous visits to Old Trafford, and given their recent poor run of form, I expect the home side to take all three points.