Someone mentioned to me in the week that Liverpool had already won this season’s Premier League, although I couldn’t find any mention of it in the media. If true, then well done to them. They were the best team by some distance; and congratulations to Adrian, who becomes another in the long line of ex-Hammers to pick up a league winners medal after having left the club – Adrian, Johnson, Ferdinand, Gale, Cole, Carrick, Lampard, and Ince. That’s almost a full team now!
Tonight, the focus switches again to football’s equivalent of a slow bicycle race, as three of the frantic five relegation candidates take to the field in an attempt to belatedly put some extra points on the board. In the last thirty games combined, the five stragglers have managed just three wins and four draws between them – thirteen points out of a possible ninety. There is often a mad scramble for the final relegation place, but in this unusual season it is distinguished by mass collective incompetence at the bottom. DLLWLLL may look like the name of a place in Wales but, sadly, it is the Hammers current form. We are indeed fortunate to others that escape is still feasible.
Tonight’s match with Chelsea is one of the toughest (along with the trip to Old Trafford) West Ham’s remaining fixtures. Both those clubs are at the top of the form table, have reacted positively in the early re-start games and will be looking confidently at a top four finish. A win tonight will move the visitors up into third place. I must admit to being surprised at how well Lampard Junior has done in his first term as Premier League manager. I think he can become a top manager but thought this job had come far too early for him. The glimmer of hope is that I said exactly the same thing back in November, when the teams last met. And we know how that turned out. A game notable for David Martin’s heroic debut, a fine Aaron Cresswell goal and zero fouls committed by Chelsea.
It will, no doubt, be another highly cautious approach from David Moyes tonight. A backs to the wall, deep defensive act of attrition. This is partly due to Moyes risk averse character but also partly due to the rag-tag of resources at his disposal, particularly in offensive areas. The task could be likened to defending the Alamo with broken guns and no ammunition.
Reading through Moyes virtual programme notes gives us a clue to how he is thinking. My takeaway from his goals from everywhere plea is that he expects attempts from free kicks or corners to be the extent of our ambition. I know the manager has to say positive things but to suggest that our downfall has been due to not taking the chances that came is a bit of a stretch. Moyes is not able to play the too tired card tonight as Chelsea have played twice since the Hammers last had a game. Perhaps he will claim we are rusty – or maybe we really will be geared up it, after a week off to re-charge the batteries. Tonight has all the hallmarks of a game that the manager wants to get out of the way quickly without too much damage. But I would like to think Moyes has a more cunning plan for the run of winnable fixtures to follow aside from hoping that our luck will change.
The good news on the team selection front is the probable return of Angelo Ogbonna. He is one of the names along with Lukasz Fabianski, Issa Diop, Declan Rice, Michail Antonio, Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen that you would want pre-printed on the team-sheet. After that it is a case of pick and mix.
The bare bones full-back option will likely default to the uninspiring pairing of Cresswell and Ryan Fredericks, now that Ngakia has packed his bags. Ben Johnson looks to be one of the several fringe players (along with Ajeti and Silva) that Moyes doesn’t trust (for whatever reason!) while Arthur Masuaku remains absent injured. According to Moyes, Masuaku is back ‘on the grass’ which leads me think ‘so, that’s what they’re smoking in the West Ham treatment room.’
Also confined to the sidelines is the club’s only striker, Sebastien Haller. I expect either Michail Antonio or Andriy Yarmolenko will be asked to play that lonely role up front. It might be worth giving Yarmolenko a try. There is little to lose and he is remarkably predictable when played in a wider role, no matter how sweet his left foot is. And I much prefer Antonio in a position where he can run with the ball at his feet. He is not a hold it up up player.
I guess from the manager’s comments that we will once again see Mark Noble starting if only for his (apparent) leadership qualities. It is a nice idea but ‘love’ for the club on its own doesn’t get you any points and Nobles best playing days are some way behind him. From another ‘it can’t be any worse’ perspective, giving pitch time to Jack Wilshere has to be a gamble worth taking sooner or later. Pablo Fornals has demonstrated enough endeavour to be given another chance, but ideally not stuck out on the wing – he works hard enough but doesn’t have the pace. Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini only get on the bench because there are extra spaces available now.
Throw that all into the mix and my preferred starting eleven would be:
Johnson, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell
Bowen, Fornals (or Wilshere), Antonio
The officials for tonight’s game are Martin Atkinson out on the pitch with Jonathan Moss struggling to fit behind the desk at VAR central. Time for those poor decisions that are meant to balance out over the course of a season to start doing so.
A mixed bag from the TV pundits. Lawro has woken up from his celebratory Anfield hangover to predict a 1-0 away win, whereas Charlie Nicholas again shows a soft spot for the Hammers by tipping them to earn a 1-1 draw.
If West Ham are to come away with anything from this game it will require massive performances from their key players – while the others must try not to do anything stupid. Chelsea have been on a good run of results without ever being convincing. They do not find it easy to penetrate packed defences but the threat will always be there if we keep gifting them the ball.
There is sure to be plenty of focus on Declan Rice in the light of the repeated transfer speculation and perhaps a thought at the back of his mind is that Champion’s League football is a possibility next season. The idea that Declan might soon be added to that list of ex-Hammer league winners is a depressing one – at least for us.
The Moyes sit back, soak up the pressure and hope for a breakaway philosophy is a long shot – might it just work? I doubt it, but you never can tell. We will need to be razor sharp, but I suspect that a draw is the best a fan get.