West Ham left with Wembley wait for European salvation
Slaven Bilic will be a Manchester United supporter on Saturday as he faces an anxious wait to discover if West Ham can qualify for Europe.
Bilic requires United to win the FA Cup and guarantee West Ham Europa League football at the club’s new Olympic Stadium after a second defeat in 13 games threatened to end an excellent campaign on a sour note. Mame Diouf ’s thumping header two minutes from time leaves West Ham nervously waiting for the Wembley showpiece and a huge favour from Louis van Gaal.
West Ham’s defeat and Southampton’s victory dropped Bilic’s team down to seventh place and they left the field to chants of “you’re not going on a European tour” from the Stoke fans.
Bilic had the air of a man whose dog had just chewed up the winning lottery ticket. “Of course we must hope Manchester United win against Palace,” he said.
“We feel we really deserve to be in Europe next season so we’ve got to hope that United do us a favour. I’m gutted to lose this game and it’s hard to take. We don’t want to end a fantastic season like this.”
Despite Dimitri Payet’s foot injury, West Ham’s season was still very much alive and there was an inevitability about their opening goal in the 23rd minute, Michail Antonio taking advantage of abysmal Stoke defending to fire past Shay Given.
Stoke’s response was alarming, as they frequently gave away possession, and West Ham should have added a second six minutes into the second half, but Diafra Sakho was denied from six yards out by Given’s outstanding reflex save. It proved a costly miss, for Stoke were level in the 55th minute thanks to a fine low shot from Giannelli Imbula, the £18.3 million record signing.
The mood was now transformed, but Stoke still required an incredi- ble slice of fortune to stay level after a scramble which saw Given clear shots from Enner Valencia and Emmanuel Emenike off the line.
Glenn Whelan then cleared Cheikhou Kouyaté’s flick off the line – goalline technology confirming it had not crossed over – and Bilic whirled around in his technical area, struggling to comprehend what he was watching.
Charlie Adam almost caught out Darren Randolph with another outrageous lobbed effort from 40 yards, but the goalkeeper was beaten two minutes from time. Diouf was unmarked in the area, powerfully heading home Adam’s corner to flip the script for West Ham.
Stoke’s victory ensured they have finished ninth for the third successive season under Mark Hughes to provide a sorely needed highlight at the end of a difficult two months.
“It’s a magnificent achievement to finish ninth again and there’s a really good feeling in the dressing room,” said Hughes.
Falling away: Slaven Bilic cannot watch after West Ham miss a chance