What would normally have been a high-profile yet fairly run-of-the-mill FA Cup third-round tie between West Ham United and Manchester United has all of a sudden taken on quite a significance for the home faithful as Upton Park gets ready to welcome home its prodigal son.
Nearly ten years after leaving the club for the Roman Abramovich revolution at Chelsea, Joe Cole returns to his boyhood side and the club where it all began for him as the ridiculously talented 17-year-old who looked like he had the football world at his feet.
Unlike many of the players who have left West Ham for other clubs (Frank Lampard being the most obvious example), Cole has always been afforded hero worship in the east end despite his defection across London and not just because of the skill and flair he displayed for the Hammers.
His work-rate and commitment, especially in the relegation campaign of 2002/03 under Glenn Roeder, ensured that Cole has always been the apple of West Ham’s eye and his free signing from Liverpool, in time to make his debut in this tie, will have given Irons fans a warm nostalgic glow.
From that respect, it is a smart move from manager Sam Allardyce and it may just work on the pitch, too.
Cole has looked like a busted flush for some time at Liverpool, where he has endured a terrible two-and-a-half years: from being sent off on his debut to his constant lack of form and fitness, he is the embodiment of the Merseysiders’ recent woes and mismanagement.
But back at his spiritual home, Cole could yet enjoy one last flourish. He has never reached the sort of potential that led many, including Sir Alex Ferguson, to suggest he was the most talented English footballer since Paul Gascoigne and there is no disputing that his powers have been on the wane in recent years.
However, under the astute tutelage of Allardyce – who has previous for getting the best out of aging players such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Ivan Campo and Youri Djorkaeff – Cole may find that, ironically, a career that hasn’t delivered as much as it promised could yet have a successful swansong, just when most people least expected it.
But I do expect that his debut could well be ruined by a ruthless Manchester United. The Premier League leaders are 3/5 to win the match, with the draw at 5/2 and the Hammers at 4/1, and as dodgy as the Red Devils have been at the back, I think they will have too much firepower for the home side, even if Ferguson will change his team around.
The Scot’s team have been a relentless winning machine this season. If you exclude the two dead rubbers in the Champions League, United have won 22 games out of 27 and they can go to Upton Park and make it 23 against a team who have found the going tough against good teams.
West Ham have had a very solid and commendable start to life back in the Premier League, but much of that has been down to how they have fared against the division’s lesser lights rather than the elite clubs.
Big Sam is very good at targeting games, especially at home, where his team can pick up points, as an average of two points per game against the sides in the bottom half shows.
But West Ham have come unstuck against better teams, winning just one of the ten fixtures against sides in the top half, and with both managers sure to make changes, United possess so much more depth that they will be able to see off whatever Hammers side Allardyce picks.
A price of 3/5 for an away side that will rest players in a cup tie is skinny, so instead take the 27/20 on Ferguson’s men to win and over 2.5 goals to be scored.
Matches involving the Red Devils are averaging 3.90 goals a game and there is no evidence at all that the goals at either end are going to cease, especially when West Ham have failed to score at home just once in 11 league games.
Top bet: Man Utd to win a game of over 2.5 goals @ 27/20