Go West: The FA Cup Fourth Round Tie That Neither Manager May Really Try To Win

When the manager was putting together the storyboard for Season 2 of the David Moyes show, he may well have visualised a few games that would stabilise the perilous league position followed a crowd pleasing run at this year’s FA Cup. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite gone according to script.

After a run comprising one win, one draw and two defeats in the league, West Ham sit precariously just outside the relegation places – on goal difference only. Perversely what might in other times be seen as the comfort of a game in hand over our relegation rivals, could realistically see the Hammers drop into the bottom three after it is played next Wednesday.  Equally, Moyes boast of an unbeaten home record will have been thoroughly tested by next weekend. The manager’s dilemma then is what permutation from his slow and ageing squad does he send out to face West Bromwich Albion in Saturday’s FA Cup Fourth Round tie? The strongest possible side and risk further fatigue to worn-out limbs or adopt a cautious approach and risk stoking the fires of supporter outrage? Either way, the options are few!

Three weeks into the transfer window and it is still more talk than action at the London Stadium – the return of Darren Randolph being all there is to show from the alleged ‘working all the hours efforts’ to bolster the squad.  I suppose it is typical of the Used Car Salesman approach to running West Ham that no ‘oven ready’ list of new recruits had been drawn up prior to the window opening – despite the desperate position the club finds itself in. For the past two or three years many of us have been banging on about a general lack of pace and athleticism throughout the squad; and specific weaknesses at full back and in central midfield. Any chance that the message has finally got through to those charged with running the club?

Adding to the foolishness of the situation is that two of the most promising academy players (Nathan Holland and Conor Coventry) have already been shipped out on loan to lower league sides. Maybe all well and good for their long term development but they could have played some part in proceedings between now and the end of the month.

Perhaps the most interesting dimension to the weekend’s game is the return of the manager formerly known as Super Slav. Since leaving the Hammers, Bilic had a brief unsuccessful stint at club management in Saudi Arabia before being appointed Head Coach of West Bromwich Albion during the close season. It has been a promising start for him at The Hawthorns, although a recent alarming dip in form (no wins in eight games) has significantly tempered Albion’s billing as runaway promotion certainties. They have been very difficult to beat but have been prone to drawing too many games. The distraction of a cup run may not be the highest of priorities for them right now.

This will be West Ham’s sixth meeting  with Albion in the FA Cup dating back to 1913 when Southern League West Ham beat First Division Albion in a first round second replay at Stamford Bridge. There were further upsets in 1933 and 1980 when the Second Division Hammers eliminated their First Division opponents while Albion were easy winners in 1953 and 2015 – scoring four goals on both occasions. Hammer’s fans with long memories will need no reminding that it was the 1980 victory that launched West Ham on the road to Wembley, and our most recent trophy success. Sadly, there will be very few players with the genuine quality of Parkes, Stewart, Lampard, Bonds, Martin, Devonshire, Brooking, Allen, Cross and Pearson available this time around.

Quite what line-up Moyes will go for, with an eye on two important Premier League games in the following week, is impossible to call. Can old-timers Pablo Zabaleta, Mark Noble and Robert Snodgrass really feature in four games in ten days? If not, who can replace them? We are probably looking at starts for Carlos Sanchez, Albian Ajeti and Fabian Balbuena. Hardly the glamour of the cup! It is no wonder that FA Cup attendances continue to fall when there is no telling just how seriously clubs will be taking the games. I am not expecting too much!

One-nil to the cockney boys!

Leicester v West Ham: A Quick-Fire Rematch With The High Flying Foxes

Last Saturday’s game against Everton was one of those where you left the ground thinking that the result was about right. Our first half display was bright enough and when we took the lead my initial thought was it was well deserved; let’s hope we can hold on to it or even improve on it in the few minutes that remain until half time. And then we conceded a corner, always a worrying thing to do given our record at defending them and the interval approaching. Our returning goalkeeper Darren Randolph had already demonstrated in the first half that he didn’t intend leaving his line to deal with crosses; he would leave them for our defenders to deal with. That was a mistake.

I’ve always liked Randolph as a keeper, particularly when it comes to reflexes, shot-stopping and clean handling. But when he was here before I always worried about his ability to deal with high crosses and his reluctance to come out to deal with them. I had hoped that aspect of his game may have improved in the Championship, but alas no. Ironically although I believe Fabianski to be an excellent goalkeeper that part of his game is perhaps his weakest too. That was one aspect of Joe Hart’s keeping that I liked, although his inability to hang on to shots and poor handling meant that many goals were conceded in that fashion in his time here.

Whilst on the subject of goalkeepers, between 1973 and 1988 only four goalkeepers started in matches for West Ham in the whole period of 15 years. Do you remember them? They were Bobby Ferguson, Mervyn Day, Phil Parkes and Tom McAlister. Incredibly, in our last six matches alone an equal number of goalkeepers have started the games for us – Fabianski, Martin, Roberto and now Randolph.

A trip to high-flying Leicester today will not be an easy one. The odds are stacked against us. It was only a few weeks ago when we tamely lost at home to a virtual Leicester Reserves side. In our last ten visits to Leicester we have won only twice, although to be fair we have only lost four of them. If you consider the last ten Premier League games between the sides, both home and away, then our record is even poorer with just one win, when we won 2-0 at the end of the 2017-18 season, a victory which ensured our safety that season. Incidentally David Moyes was the manager that day, and the two goals were scored by Mario, and that wonderful volley from Mark Noble.

Leicester’s recent form has been poor in comparison to their season as a whole, and they have now lost four of their last six games, conceding 12 goals in the process. In their first 17 games this season they only let in 11 goals. Despite that they are still third in the Premier League table well clear of fourth place, and likely to achieve a place in the Champions league next season. After being almost invincible at home all season, their defeat to Southampton was their second home defeat in a row. Generally fans believe that when it comes to scoring goals Leicester rely heavily on Vardy. To some extent that is true in that he is the Premier League’s leading scorer to date this season with 17 goals. But to balance that, Leicester’s last nine goals in the league have all been scored by different players.

Against Everton we extended our lead at the top of the Premier League table for sides dropping points from a winning position – the total is now 17. And returning to the goalkeeper, Darren Randolph has played in 15 away Premier League games and has only kept one clean sheet in all those games. Our manager has an even poorer record in that in 49 games away from home against a top four side he has only won just one of them!

Taking all of the above factors into account and adding the fact that we are the away side in poor form in 16th place in the table before this round of matches, facing a Leicester side intent on resuming winning ways to maintain their challenge for second place in the Premier League, then what realistic chance do we have? The bookmakers have Leicester at shorter than 1/2 to win the game, whilst we are a not very generous 11/2. Surely our odds should be much longer than that? I suppose we can take some heart from Southampton’s surprise win there ten days ago, although they are one of the form sides at the moment and have now taken 10 points from their last 5 games (as opposed to our 4 points, which is only better than Burnley’s 3 and Bournemouth’s 1). Even Norwich have picked up 5 points from their last 5 games! Also, Leicester were beaten at Turf Moor at the weekend by a Burnley side on a losing streak.

Perhaps another hope is the closeness of the Premier League this season. Last Saturday’s results illustrated that to some extent with 5 draws and the other 3 games being won by a solitary goal margin. On Sunday there was only a one goal margin in the Burnley v Leicester game, whilst Liverpool were the only side to win by two with their last minute second goal against Manchester United.

We’ve really got to hope for an unexpected win, because we have a tough run of fixtures coming up. After today in our next four games we have home and away games against Liverpool and a trip to Manchester City. In between we entertain Brighton, and then on 29th February in-form Southampton are our visitors. I may be wrong but I think that the last time we won a game on February 29th was the FA Cup quarter final against Burnley at Upton Park in 1964, the year we went on to win the trophy for the first time. I was in the West Stand standing enclosure at midday when the gates opened that day.

I can remember some entertaining games against Leicester. One of the highlights was a Boxing Day game in 1967 where we recovered from going two goals down to win 4-2. Another came the following season in 1968 when we beat them 4-0 and Martin Peters scored the best goal I have ever seen. Of course Mark Noble’s volley the season before last in our 2-0 win was also one of the goals nominated in the West Ham goals of the decade. Perhaps we can see a special goal today that wins us the game?

Opportunity Knocked – The Five Takeaways As West Ham Once Again Let Points Slip From Their Grasp

The inability to hold on to points continues to hamper the Hammer’s relegation battle. And the unintended consequences of VAR.

Varalysis By Analysis

Varalysis  noun  the loss of the ability to move (or to feel anything) when a goal is scored, due to an uneasy fear of the outcome from the VAR review.

Even when VAR doesn’t throw up anything controversial in a game (unless you include the Ajeti headbutt in the dying minutes) it has made a lasting impact on the match-day experience. When Issa Diop headed the West Ham opener (apparently the Hammer’s first headed goal of the season) just before half-time could we celebrate or not? Had Angelo Ogbonna’s offside stud touched the ball on the way through? Was there a handball incident in the lead up to the free-kick? Celebrations are starting to show signs of the yips, as they do in golf or darts. Not that this mundane game couldn’t have done with something more to liven it up.

A Tale Of Two Footballing Cities

It was the best of halves, it was the worst of halves. Having been much the better team in the first period, it was disappointing to concede a soft equaliser before the break before offering little in the second half. We have become poor at defending corners – and an apparent zonal marking system and stay-on-the-line keeper didn’t help matters. It allowed what had been a poor Everton team back into the game. There are many parallels between West Ham and Everton – a sense of misplaced grandeur, a belief that winning games should be an entitlement from the fact that they have big-name signings and are based in big footballing cities. Hard work, effort and application are for the lower classes. Both managers have their work cut out in shaking things up. This was certainly a game that West Ham would have been targeting to win – so it must go down as two precious points conceded.

Encouraging Signs?

Credit where it is due, there have been some encouraging signs on the pitch since the appointment of David Moyes – at least in the context of a team needing to steer clear of relegation. There has been a noticeable increase in intensity and energy levels even if they cannot yet be sustained for a full 90 minutes. Shape and organisation have improved; players are less isolated or exposed with the result that individual errors are less costly – with backup usually available. There is still some way to go and only so much can be achieved from a squad that is short on numbers, deficient in key positions and showing signs of age. Going into the closing stages of the season without quality recruits would represent a huge risk.

Precious Little Creativity

The conundrum with the current side is that those players who put in the most effort are among the least limited; either because of age, technical ability or both. I was pleasantly surprised how well Pablo Zabaleta performed and you can never fault the effort put in by Mark Noble and Robert Snodgrass – at least until they start to tire. But it is not always what a player does that is important, but what they don’t. In fact, looking at each of our midfielders on Saturday they all recorded commendable pass completion statistics on paper – and yet there were very few clear cut chances created. Aside from set pieces there is not much threat – if you could bring on a player just to take free kicks and corners then Snodgrass would be invaluable. Sebastien Haller struggles to justify his price tag continue but he still needs better support and service. Manuel Lanzini has completely lost his mojo since his recent injury woes. He had a reasonable amount of the ball but was mostly too deep and did absolutely nothing of note. Why it was Pablo Fornals and not Lanzini who was the first to be replaced is puzzling. The returns of Michail Antonio and Felipe Anderson will be eagerly awaited.

Solid Defence or Poor Opposition Attack?

Defensively, it was a solid performance – but part of that may be down to how lacklustre the opposition in attcking areas. Maybe it would have been a different story had Richarlison been playing. Still Ogbonna and Diop were accomplished, Declan Rice provided excellent defensive cover and both Aaron Cresswell and Zabaleta put in generally competent defensive displays, despite getting caught out on occasion. The two full backs also recorded the most individual touches among the West Ham players – both getting forward frequently to provide a semblance of width that was otherwise missing.

Ratings: Randolph (5), Zabaleta (7), Diop (7), Ogbonna (7), Cresswell (7), Rice (7), Noble (6), Snodgrass (6), Fornals (6), Lanzini (4), Haller (5) Subs: Masuaku (5), Ajeti (5)

Can money buy success? Yes, but not for West Ham!

Deloitte have recently released their Money League figures where they rank all of the football teams in Europe according to their revenue. It is based upon the 2018-19 season and makes interesting reading. West Ham have retained their place in the top 20 of this league for the fourth consecutive year, and are one of 11 English clubs that make the top 30, which highlights the importance of the Premier League broadcasting rights to football clubs in England. An example of this is that West Ham had a higher revenue figure than Ajax who were Dutch champions and reached the semi-final of the Champions League!

I have listed below the positions of the top 30 clubs in the Deloitte Money league table in terms of their revenue but placed them within their individual countries, and then shown the position that they hold in their own league table at today’s date in brackets.

England

  1. Manchester United (5th)
  2. Manchester City (2nd)
  3. Liverpool (1st)
  4. Tottenham (8th)
  5. Chelsea (4th)
  6. Arsenal (10th)
  7. West Ham (16th)
  8. Everton (11th)
  9. Leicester (3rd)
  10. Wolves (7th)
  11. Crystal Palace (9th)

Spain

  1. Barcelona (1st)
  2. Real Madrid (2nd)
  3. Atletico Madrid (3rd)
  4. Valencia (6th)

Germany

  1. Bayern Munich (3rd)
  2. Borussia Dortmund (4th)
  3. Schalke 04 (5th)
  4. Eintracht Frankfurt (13th)

Italy

  1. Juventus (1st)
  2. Inter Milan (2nd)
  3. AS Roma (5th)
  4. Napoli (11th)
  5. AC Milan (10th)

France

  1. Paris SG (1st)
  2. Lyon (7th)

Portugal

  1. Benfica (1st)
  2. Porto (2nd)

Netherlands

  1. Ajaz (1st)

Russia

  1. FC Zenit St Petersburg (1st)

So what does this reveal? In seven of the eight countries the team currently at the top of the league are represented within the 30 wealthiest clubs in terms of revenue. The exception to this rule is the German Bundesliga where RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach are currently 1st and 2nd in the league table, but are not in the top 30 European clubs in terms of revenue.

If we focus on England, then the eleven clubs that are in the top 30 are all in the top 11 of the Premier League with just one exception. Yes, West Ham are that exception, as we currently sit in 16th place in the table. Based purely on revenue we should be 7th in the Premier League.

Looking across the various leagues you can see that money generally does buy success. So why are West Ham under-performing? If you look through the various social media sites you will see so many reasons touted. The owners, the board, the stadium, the management, the coaching, the fitness, the tactics, recruitment policy, poor investment in players and training facilities, playing formation, the players, injuries – these are just some of the potential reasons put forward by those that take to the internet and other media outlets to vent their feelings. It’s a combination of all of those but responsibility lies at the top, surely?

This weekend we take on Everton, another team reckoned to be performing below expectation, and certainly below revenue ranking. We are five places and six points below them with a slightly inferior goal difference. If we can beat them we cut the gap to three points, and we would have a better goal difference.

The Premier League is as tight as ever with just 12 points separating Sheffield United in 6th from Bournemouth in 19th. Norwich are adrift but the majority of clubs in the league could still be in danger of relegation.

The current form table (last 5 matches) has Liverpool at the top with 15 points, followed by Southampton and Watford (13), Manchester City (12), Chelsea (10), Manchester United and Everton (9), Wolves and Sheffield United (7), Leicester, Palace, Arsenal, Villa and West Ham (6), Tottenham, Newcastle and Brighton (4), Burnley (3), Norwich (2) and Bournemouth (1).

If current (last 5 games) form is maintained in the second half of the season then Bournemouth, Norwich, Burnley, Brighton and Newcastle would appear to be the teams in greatest trouble. But it doesn’t necessarily work like that and current form can improve, or indeed deteriorate. You definitely need to add both West Ham and Villa to the five teams I mentioned, and both Watford and Southampton could see a reversal of the fine form they’ve shown to move them up the table. If we beat Everton today then perhaps they, too can be added to the list of potential relegation candidates. So, I’ve narrowed it down to the ten teams that make up the bottom half of the table who could end up in the Championship next season! But even the three London teams which sit in 8th, 9th and 10th places (Tottenham, Palace and Arsenal) could join in as they are not in great form either, each having won only one of their last 5 games. But I can’t see that happening, and they, along with Sheffield United have enough points in the bag, and are probably too good to go down anyway.

Relegation betting is interesting. Norwich are odds on 1/12 to go down. Other odds are Villa 8/13, Bournemouth 4/5, Watford 5/2, Newcastle 10/3, Burnley & West Ham 7/2, Brighton 7/1, Southampton 18/1, Palace 22/1, Everton 50/1, Sheffield United 66/1. All other teams are 100/1 plus. What is ridiculous is that Liverpool are quoted at 2000/1. I hope they don’t accept any bets on that, because if Liverpool lost every single game from here they could still not be anywhere close to relegation. Bad form from betting firms I’m afraid.

Head to head statistics in our games against Everton make us outsiders in the game today. In the last 23 Premier League fixtures we have won only 3 and lost 14. And Everton have won on 7 of the last 11 occasions when they have been our visitors. And going back even further we have lost to Everton in top flight fixtures a total of 63 times, more than against any other opponents.

Although David Moyes has been on the losing side in 5 of his six encounters against his former club, his record as manager at the London Stadium is good with just three defeats as West Ham manager in 15 games. Scoring the first goal would be a good thing for us as Everton have not won a game in 34 matches now when they have conceded the opening goal. Although those are the kind of statistics I hate to see in relation to West Ham. How we love to end runs like that!

Two of Everton’s most dangerous players are likely to be missing through injury, Richarlison and Sigurdsson, but of course our injury list is lengthening all the time. I cannot understand the negativity regarding the signing of Randolph as a back-up goalkeeper. He is certainly good enough for that role and is a definite improvement on both Martin and Roberto.

Everton have scored in 7 consecutive Premier League away fixtures, something they have not done for a long time. I reckon we’ll put an end to that run and win the game 2-0. Perhaps that’s just my optimism, or West Ham tinted glasses, but I feel really confident regarding today’s game. I hope I’m right!

The West Ham Revival Part 2: Bouncing Back From The Blades To Take On Everton At The London Stadium

With his first honeymoon ending in a decidedly limp manner, courtesy of VAR, David Moyes will be looking to demonstrate ‘bouncebackability’ as the Hammers come up against his old club, Everton.

Yet again the important business of transfer speculation is interrupted by having to play a game of football. And to make matters worse, it will be two matches in a week as West Ham kick-off a run of 17 potential ‘must win’ games between now and the middle of May. They probably need to win at least five or six of them.

As things stand West Ham are among the front-runners in this season’s relegation stakes. Things can change, of course, but right now it looks any three from Norwich, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Brighton, Burnley and West Ham for the drop – you couls potentially add in Watford but I don’t see them as relegation material now they have got their act together. Norwich are already well off the pace, but  a revival in East Anglia could set up a claret and blue treble. Optimists might point out that the Hammers have a game in hand as well as one of the better goal differences among the threatened clubs – but both of those could be wiped out when we meet Liverpool at the end of the month. Looking at how compressed the lower half of the table is suggests that clubs will need every one of those 40 points this time around.

Any encounter with Everton is a huge test for David Moyes as it is the Toffees that he is still most closely associated. Although ultimately it required the assistance of VAR to confirm defeat at Bramall Lane last week, it was a disappointing West Ham performance that brought the new manager’s honeymoon to an abrupt halt. The bounce turned out to be of the dead cat variety. He will be desperate to launch bounce phase two against his old club. Moyes may have the natural demeanour of Eeyore but needs to embrace his inner Tigger to breath life into his listless team.

One probable change this week will be the returning Darren Randolph in place of the re-injured Lukasz Fabianski. In his previous West Ham incarnation, Randolph showed he could be a more than competent shot-stopper but I will keep fingers crossed that he has toughened up in the air during his time on Teesside. He is good enough to fill the spot as an understudy keeper but he is unlikely to single-handedly save the season. For that we would need Gandalf rather than Randolph.

Who eventually joins him through the West Ham transfer window is anyone’s guess. As usual there are so many mixed messages as to the type of player(s) being pursued. The usual in-the-knows and reliable journalists have been throwing up new names, from the exotic to the mundane, on an almost daily basis. I would be quite happy with a Barkley or a Clyne, much less so with a Fellaini or an Allen. The sense that we have all been in this very same position before – allowed to drift into a relegation battle and potentially recruit a bunch of journeyman has-beens as a reaction – is highly depressing.

The idea that the club will let yet another transfer window pass without finally strengthening the suspect central midfield area and bringing in pace and athleticism is inconceivable, isn’t it?

No doubt the owners will be persuaded to open their wallets (even if it is for loan deals – which are not a problem in principle) as their only deeply held desire is to hold on to their Premier League status. Never mind taking profits or receiving income from director loans, it is the asset value of the club that is important to them – and that would plummet in the Championship.

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Gold and Sullivan taking control of the club. In wedding terms that would make it a tin anniversary. If only our own tin men had a heart (or a brain as well come to that). Or is the heart they are searching for the one that many believe has been ripped out of the club?  It has been obvious to me for some time that the owners have no strategy that seeks to incrementally improve the club and the way that it is organised. The fighting words they made on taking over the reins at West Ham has never been backed up by a sensible plan of action. Money has been spent but not wisely or with long term team building in mind. The irony is that despite everything, West Ham is one of the top twenty biggest clubs in the world in terms of revenues. Professional football people taking day to day control of operations could easily make a big difference.

Making a quick return to West Ham officiating is Andre Marriner from the West Midlands. He was most recently in charge of the Hammer’s defeat at Crystal Palace. This week’s Dr Evil in the VAR Stockley Park bunker is Simon Hooper from Wiltshire. In the pre-VAR days West Ham looked to be the one club that would benefit from accurate and consistent refereeing decisions. And yet, the exact opposite has been true in practice – or at least that is how it looks through my claret and blue spectacles. Funnily enough, I don’t remember any hoo-hah being made about accidental handballs leading to goals back then. The new interpretation has tried to fix a problem that didn’t exist – it is ridiculous and inconsistent. If the concern is that a player has gained an advantage then the same must also be true of any ball to hand for a defender in the penalty area – yet it goes unpunished. As I have mentioned before, giving the responsibility for implementing VAR to referees was asking for trouble.

Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are again synchronised this week in calling a 2-1 West Ham win. Although it is a winnable game I am not confident unless we start on the front foot and dominate the middle of the park – something we have struggled with for much of the season. Calvert-Lewin will cause problems for our defenders as he did last season (but now he is scoring goals as well), Richarlison will run at our defence and fall over at the slightest change in air pressure (beware Simon Hooper) while Walcott saves all his best performances for the Hammers. On the other hand they are vulnerable at the back but can we put them under sustained enough pressure? I am not certain that Moyes will be bold enough to throw everything at them rather than keeping it tight. Hoping for a win, but feeling it’s a draw.

Blade Runners: Newly Energised West Ham Face Tough Challenge In The Steel City

David Moyes ‘Don’t Run, Don’t Play’ policy faces it’s sternest test yet as the Hammers travel to Bramall Lane to face Sheffield United, the season’s surprise footballing package.

Things could hardly have gone any better for David Moyes at the start of his second stint as West Ham manager. Two games, two wins, two clean sheets. Lucky in many ways to have begun with such a benign set of fixtures but it will have helped build both confidence in the squad and a degree of support for the manager.

The bounciness of any new managerial appointment always has limits before gravity and drag attempt to return it towards equilibrium. Solskjær’s endured for several months at Manchester United last season while Mourinho’s honeymoon at Tottenham was much shorter lived. Coming up against a gritty, well disciplined and determined Sheffield United side poses a serious challenge to the momentum of the current Moyes bounce. And that ignores any potential energy that might be added to this evenings proceedings as a result of the Carlos Tevez effect. Remember, when West Ham played with the unfair advantage of Tevez in their team they only lost 3-0 at Bramall Lane.

The Blades have undoubtedly been one of the success stories of the season so far. A team with no stars but having great work ethic and a shape that manages to be both well organised and unorthodox at the same time. Manager, Chris Wilder, can take much of the credit in producing a style that is so unfamiliar to Premier League opponents that many have struggled to cope with it. Whether managers will ultimately become wise to the approach, as we enter the second half of the season, remains to be seen. One certainly wouldn’t have put any money on Pellegrini spotting an Achilles heel, but can Moyes fare any better?

I suspect that the manager would like to play three at the back today – I believe he sees it as the best way to instil defensive stability given the players available to him. It was also apparently (at least from what I have read) one of the tactics employed by both Southampton and Newcastle in their wins at Bramall Lane. That formation, however,  may have been frustrated by the injury to Ryan Fredericks – just when he was at last looking to use his pace as an attacking threat. Pablo Zabaleta would be the obvious replacement but, putting aside the unlikely strike at Gillingham, there is a major question mark over his pace and stamina these days. Perhaps Michail Antonio is an alternative wing back option if considered fit enough to start.

Elsewhere, there are unlikely to be many changes from the side that started against Bournemouth, subject to there being no further injury problems. It has been encouraging to hear the manager’s “if you don’t run, you don’t play” mantra being repeated again this week although, maybe, it is too early to expect fitness levels to have reached that required to compete for 90 minutes – especially against opponents that demonstrate an effective never-say-die philosophy.

Today will see a third encounter of a close kind with referee Michael Oliver from Northumberland. If you believe in omens you will disappointed to be reminded that the last two ended in defeat – home games with Palace and Tottenham. Oliver’s wingman on the VAR master console will be occasional Premier League referee, Simon Hooper of Wiltshire.

In a rare Jupiter aligning with Mars moment, media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are agreed in predicting a fence sitting 1-1 draw. It is easy to understand why, with the chances of a Friday night goal-fest for the stay-at-home TV audience, unlikely from two relatively low-scoring teams.

From his own bigger picture perspective, Moyes may be inclined to view the game as a point not to lose, rather than two more to win – and will approach the game accordingly. That’s not to say, though, that it can’t be won courtesy of a quick breakaway. The hosts are strong in the air and rapid attacks through the middle might prove a more productive route to goal than crosses into the box – perhaps a reprise of Felipe Anderson’s goal against Bournemouth might do the trick. A goalless draw would be no surprise but, as always, we live in hope.

Sheffield United v West Ham – The Friday Night Match

In blog articles over the past few years, and in Gary Firmager’s much-missed fanzine Over Land and Sea before that, I have frequently written about my dislike for football matches that kick off at non-standard times. If I had my way all league games would be played on Saturdays with a 3pm kick off. Of course, with the money that Sky, and then BT, and recently Amazon have put into the Premier League, then they dictate the times when football matches are played with little thought for the fans, especially as they turn up and fill the stadiums whenever.

Of course this enables me to watch a number of West Ham games away from home on TV that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, but in all honesty I would have preferred the game to have remained as it was before Sky pumped their money in. However I can’t change things so I have to go along with it as we all do. As for the non-standard kick off times then we now have a whole plethora of them each weekend. In addition to the 3pm start on Saturdays, we can now kick off at Saturday lunchtime, teatime and evening. On Sundays it can be lunchtime, early afternoon and late afternoon. We also have Monday Night football too, as well as all the midweek games which enable so many matches to be watched if you have the time, inclination, and are prepared to pay. This game is in addition to all those times though, and is one of the occasional games that are scheduled for a Friday evening. I’m not happy with the timing but I guess I will tune in nonetheless as it is West Ham. I really couldn’t be bothered if it wasn’t my team.

This game is the return fixture of the one that was played at 3pm on Saturday 26th October, just two and a half months ago. Such a lot has happened since then, and from a West Ham viewpoint, most of it has not been good. If you remember that day, then in the first half we were the only team that wanted to play but we found it very hard to break down a well organised Sheffield defence. But a minute before half time Roberto took a long goal kick which found Anderson who set up Snodgrass to fire the ball low past Henderson to put us one up.

We thought that we would go on from there in the second half, but Sheffield United decided to play, and they played well, deserving the draw that they gained from Mousset, who had just come on as a substitute, whose side-footed volley deceived Roberto as he dived to his left, and the ball crept inside the post. Following that game both teams had 13 points from ten games played and sat 7th and 9th in the table. As we go into the return fixture, Sheffield United are now 8th while we are 16th, and just two points above the relegation positions. The excellent win in our last league game (at home to Bournemouth) ensured that we were not in the bottom three when we played our FA Cup third round tie at Gillingham last Sunday. Incidentally, has there ever been an FA Cup tie where two different players called Pablo have scored for the same team?

Sheffield United have surprised many people this season with their current position in the league, and especially their organisation. But one fact we should bear in mind is that they have actually been a better side away from home, where they were unbeaten until their last two games when they lost 2-0 on each occasion to Manchester City and Liverpool, so no disgrace there. But at home they have actually lost four games, not surprisingly to Leicester and Liverpool, but also to Southampton and Newcastle, so potentially they are more vulnerable at Bramall Lane. The gap is now 7 points which have opened up since our last meeting. Wouldn’t it be good to cut that to four after this game? Not surprisingly the home team are odds on to win the game, whereas you can get in excess of 3/1 for West Ham to be within four points, and at the same time climb into eleventh place in the table, at least until all the other teams play their games over the protracted weekend period.

The last five games ‘form table’ has Liverpool at the top (of course) with 15 points, followed by Manchester City on 12, and then two surprises, with Southampton (who have climbed out of the relegation zone) and Watford (who are still in it) both with 10 points. Everton follow on 8 points and then there are five clubs each on 7 and 6 points respectively. Sheffield United are one of those on 7, whereas we are on 6. The teams propping up the form table are Norwich and Newcastle with 3, Bournemouth with 4, then Brighton and Arsenal with 5. The league is still very tight with just 12 points separating Manchester United in fifth and Watford in nineteenth. Norwich are the only team currently adrift and they will need a big upturn to avoid returning to the Championship next season.

So what will happen this evening? I have a feeling that it will be a very tight game with few, if any goals. Perhaps a goalless draw, or possibly a game settled by a single goal. I hope we score it! History is against that happening. We have a negative record in games against Sheffield United, and haven’t pulled up any trees at Bramall Lane. We haven’t both been in the top flight at the same time on too many occasions, but when we have we’ve only won one of the last 13 games away from home in a period which stretches back 56 years tomorrow. That win was in April 1968 when a team containing Moore, Hurst, Peters, Bonds, Brooking and Lampard won 2-1 at Bramall Lane with two goals from Geoff Hurst.