Hammers Bid Farewell To Fulham In Frightful Friday Night Affair

Will it be back from the warm weather break with a bang or will the usual slow start against unfancied opposition disappoint once more?

I may have mentioned this before but my very first visit to Upton Park was to watch a game against Fulham.  It was in March 1961 and in the immediate aftermath of Ted Fenton being mysteriously sent home on sick leave – just before his eventual sacking and replacement by Ron Greenwood.  A disappointing 2-1 defeat set the tone nicely for the ensuing sixty years or so.

A dark secret from back then was that I inexplicably believed that Bubbles included the line ‘Fortune’s always hiding, lilacs everywhere’.  Perhaps not the most amusing of misheard lyrics but it was refreshing to hear that the current multi-lingual squad had managed a better grasp of the words – as they serenaded Manuel Lanzini’s at his 26th   birthday bash during the annual ‘knocked out the cup early’ warm weather holiday in Marbella.  With a perception that the team usually returns from such breaks with a lethargic holiday hangover all eyes will be on what is served up for us tonight.

Of all the spectator unfriendly, moved for the TV schedules, kick-off times, it is the Friday night one that I dislike the most.  Friday night is for unwinding at the end of the working week with a meal and a drink – it is not meant for football and has the added disadvantage of leaving the rest of the weekend free to be roped into other duties such as shopping or garden related activities.  The weekend doesn’t start here but ends before it has even started!

The season has a serious danger of fizzling out to nothing unless an inspired run for seventh place can be somehow pulled out of the hat.  A straw poll of fellow supporters suggests a 10th to 12th finish is closer to expectations – which, for me, would represent a failure (by the club as a whole) based on where it sits in the money league.

Tonight’s opponents would, no doubt, bite your arm off at the prospect of mid-table obscurity but, regardless of the outcome tonight, it is difficult to see them lasting long enough to have a shot at second season syndrome.  Maybe attempting such a major squad renovation in the summer was a flawed strategy and perhaps they were too quick to jettison the manager who had earned them promotion.  Bringing in Ranieri was an odd choice given that he is hardly the type of inspiring character needed in a relegation dogfight.  He will dine out on his ‘serendipitous’ title winning season at Leicester forever but will most likely soon have a matching relegation honour to balance it out.

Reports have it that several of the Hammer’s long term injured (Lanzini, Fabian Balbuena and Samir Nasri) could be in the frame to play a part in today’s game.  It is unlikely that any will be making a start but may well feature from the bench.  If there are any changes to the eleven that started at Selhurst Park then it would be Pablo Zabaleta returning in place of Ryan Fredericks and Marko Arnautovic replacing Javier Hernandez.

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Although I can understand why supporters might be a little miffed following Arnautovic’s antics during the transfer window, he is the only player in the squad capable of playing effectively as a lone striker.  Manuel Pellegrini may, of course, opt to play with two strikers but that would leave the team woefully short in midfield numbers and energy – even against a side with Fulham’s limitations.  The reservation with Arnautovic, though, is that, based on the evidence of the footage from Spain, he looked to be carrying a little extra weight than ideal.

The Friday night referee is Lee Mason from Lancashire who was last seen at the London Stadium in December for the defeat against Watford.

The usual pundits are unanimous in their prediction of a West Ham win; with Merson going for 3-1 against Lawro’s 2-0.  The Hammer’s consistent inconsistency over the years might have prepared us for any eventuality and many a team looking to end a miserable run of away results has frequently found West Ham to be charitable hosts.  However, even if the visitors press and harry in midfield to upset the Hammer’s rhythm their defence is so shocking that it would seem impossible not to score.    One of the most memorable West Ham victories over Fulham that I have seen was a 7-2 win in February 1968 – a game that featured a rare compendium of goals from Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking and Martin Peters (plus one from Brian Dear).  It would be most agreeable to witness something similar this evening to make up for a spoiled weekend.

West Ham entertain Fulham in yet another match with a “non-standard kick-off time”

Who will come out on top in the derby between the “Former Managers of Premier League Champions”?

When ten-man Fulham held off Aston Villa to win the Championship Play-Off final barely nine months ago thanks to a first half goal from their captain Tom Cairney, I suspect that they did not believe that they would be in this predicament now. Promotion was gained in what many believe is the most exciting way, and there were high hopes that they could consolidate a position in the Premier League. The owner spent a not inconsiderable amount in the transfer market, and like Wolves, it was felt that they had given themselves a good shot at steering clear of the relegation places. They were certainly more fancied than Cardiff to retain their top flight status.

However after an horrific start the owner lost his nerve after a dozen games, sacked Jokanovic, and brought in Claudio Ranieri, hopefully to recreate the magic of his achievements at Leicester. It hasn’t improved much since then, and now Fulham, with an horrendous goal difference (-33), are effectively 9 points adrift of safety with just a dozen games to go. To achieve an average of a point a game by the end of the campaign, they would need to collect 21 points in their final 12 games, a tall order when you consider they have amassed just 17 points to date from 26 games.

Those 17 points have been won from just four wins and five draws, with their only victories coming over fellow strugglers in the bottom eight who are involved in the relegation dogfight, namely Burnley, Southampton, Huddersfield and Brighton. All of those wins have come at Craven Cottage, highlighting that their form away from home has been particularly miserable, with just two points gained from draws at Newcastle and Brighton. As a seasoned West Ham fan that is a worrying statistic.

As the season begins to approach its climax we sit in the top half in tenth place, in the pack of six clubs chasing seventh place, or perhaps being champions of the unofficial Premier League Division Two. Wolves and Watford lead that particular competition at the moment, but they can be caught by any of the four teams immediately below them, (Everton, ourselves, Bournemouth and Leicester) with a good run to the end of the season.

Certainly our six remaining home games against Fulham, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Everton, Leicester and Southampton are eminently winnable games, although I suspect (but hope otherwise) that we will pick up far fewer points on our travels, where, apart from Cardiff, the other five games are against teams in the top eight, with only Arsenal and Wolves from that octet having to wait until next season to meet us again.

It seems that our awful injury list is diminishing, and more players are available for this game. We have quite an array of (fit) attacking talent at our disposal, and I wonder how the manager will piece together four offensive players from this list: (a hopefully interested) Arnautavic, Chicarito, Carroll, Anderson, Snodgrass, Lanzini, Nasri, Antonio, Perez, Diangana, and Silva. This assumes that Fabianski, Zabaleta (or Fredericks), Cresswell, Diop, Ogbonna (or Balbuena), Noble and Rice will form the remainder of the team.

In order to provide a mixture of width and guile, and based upon recent form, I fully expect Antonio, Nasri, and Anderson to line up behind Arnautavic or Chicarito. I expect Lanzini to be eased back gently, and would see him playing a part from the bench. Who fills the other places waiting to come on later in the game is anyone’s guess but (apparently) Perez is out of favour, and Diangana, Silva, and possibly even Carroll may not make the 18. In addition to one of the right backs, and one of the centre backs, plus Adrian and Obiang, then Lanzini, Snodgrass and one of Arnautavic or Chicarito will probably make up the squad, unless there are any further questions re fitness.

Perhaps Carroll will be in the 18 to provide another attacking option in place of one of the more defensive minded options. Masuaku is another I haven’t mentioned, and his versatility could get him a squad place, although he would not be my choice. It may be a shame for Diangana and Silva to miss out, but their turn will come next season I’m sure. They have been in and around the squad in recent times and will benefit from the experience gained, and will get further opportunities once injuries start to kick in again!

Looking at the odds offered by leading bookmakers, they seem to believe that Fulham have a better chance in this game than form (ours at home, and theirs away) would suggest. We are only slightly odds on to win the game (around 5/6) and Fulham are quoted at around 11/4. Now if this wasn’t West Ham we were talking about then I would say there was easy money to made here. Will we see a performance like against Wimbledon or one that was so unlucky not to beat Liverpool? In view of the competition for places (and putting Fulham’s poor away form aside – it’s amazing how teams with records like this bring poor runs to an end against us!), I fully expect us to take them apart under the lights, and further condemn them in their (vain) battle to remain a Premier League team. It’s about time we had a five or six goal romp, and 6-0 is quoted at 125/1. The bookies aren’t particularly generous are they? When did we last win a game 6-0? Even Fulham are quoted at a paltry 150/1 to beat us 6-0! Now that wouldn’t be worth a bet at 150,000/1!

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action, Please: West Ham At The Palace!

All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me! Which West Ham will it be making the short trip out to south London suburbia to take on the Eagles of Crystal Palace?

It was, I believe, Brendan Rodgers, who first talked about ‘being in the conversation’ referring to his side’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win the Premier League in the 2013/14 season.  The phrase has since been picked up by a host of commentators and pundits who might say (laughably, I know) that Tottenham are ‘in the conversation’ as far as this year’s title is concerned or else may debate who ‘is in the conversation’ for this season’s player of the year award – entries, of course, limited to those appearing for a top six club.

It made me wonder whether West Ham were likely to appear in any conversation any time soon.  Perhaps, and with some justification, which is the most injury prone team in the league or, maybe, which is the most inconsistent?  Ideally, it would be who is the conversation to finish best of the rest and end up snatching a Europa Cup spot.  A great deal more consistency would be required to make that a reality!

There were so many plaudits following the Monday night performance against Liverpool that it is difficult to remember that West Ham didn’t actually win the game.  Perhaps they would have gone on to do so had it not been for Simon The-One-Eyed Linesman.  Klopp came in for a lot of criticism for his post-match rant about the officials but he is not the first manager to be found spouting bollocks in the heat of the moment.  To his credit he still took time to congratulate both sets of players as they left the field at the end of the game.

Exactly how the same team that performed so feebly against Wimbledon and Wolves managed to raise their game to such an extent against Liverpool continues to defy logic.  It would seem to suggest that there are or have been some serious attitude issues within the squad.  Any clues as to whether these have now been put behind them will be on show when they take the field against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park this afternoon.  Since winning at Southampton, just after Christmas, it is now four straight away defeats (including cup) on the bounce, serving to balance out the recent improvement in results at the London Stadium.

Even though, as one of the top twenty richest clubs in the world, we may like to see ourselves as knocking on the top six door along with other moneyed pretenders such as Everton and Newcastle, the reality in recent season has been one of tussles with the likes of Palace and Southampton in the lower to middle reaches of the league.  In the five seasons since Palace returned to the Premier League, the Eagles have finished above the Hammers on three occasions.  With only two places, but six points, separating the two teams, it would be a major disappointment if that scenario happened again.

The main selection dilemmas for Manuel Pellegrini are whether Marko Arnautovic returns following several weeks out with the sulks and whether Ryan Fredericks keeps his starting berth or is replaced by Pablo Zabaleta.  Everyone had a decent game on Monday but the manager still needs to pick his strongest team – the ancient concept of not changing a (nearly) winning team is a dated one in the modern game.  Despite Javier Herndandez putting in one of his better non-scoring displays, Arnautovic has far more to offer in the lone striker role.  If there was one thing clear from the Liverpool game it was that the team are much more compact and with better shape when there are more bodies in midfield – with current personnel two strikers just doesn’t work.  Fredericks would be unlucky to lose his place but I expect Zabaleta to get the nod.

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As for Palace, it seems that Zaha has been given a suspended suspension so that he can play today despite an extra match ban following his dismissal for making fun of the referee.  Perhaps in the circumstances he should be electronically tagged during the game both to monitor his whereabouts and his outrageous diving – a sort of Simulation Assistant Referee based on the ‘Tilt’ functionality of old style pinball machines.

The danger for West Ham looks to be down the Palace right flank where the marauding Wan-Bissaka (surely in the conversation for young player of the year alongside Declan Rice) and one of the league’s top chance creator, Andros Townsend, will need to be carefully marshalled.  With Pellegrini’s preference for the high line and narrow defending it is a cause for concern that it may allow even Benteke or Batshuayi to find opportunities to score.

The match-day referee is Craig Pawson from South Yorkshire.  Pawson was in charge of that most recent West Ham away win at Southampton.  He started the season with a flurry of red cards but has since calmed down a little.

Of the pundits, Lawro is convinced by a 1-1 draw while Merson has become frustrated by the Hammer’s inconsistency and foresees a 1-0 home win.  I always believe that these encounters will have goals in them and fancy at least four or more this afternoon.  For the Hammers to triumph, it will need the same intensity and application that we saw on Monday.    We can’t always rely on Felipe Anderson and Declan Rice to drag us over the line and it will require others such Angelo Ogbonna, Issa Diop and Aaron Creswell to stay on high alert and play at the top of their game.  Support to Cresswell down our left will also be vital.  Assuming all of that can be delivered I am going for a 3-2 to the Hammers repeat of the December score.

Crystal Palace versus West Ham Preview

Will the Hammers Take it to the Limit against the Eagles? Or will they Take It Easy?

You start to see the pressure on football managers when things start to go wrong. After an uninspiring draw against Leicester, most people fully expected Liverpool to bounce back and see off an out of form West Ham on Monday evening. But the Hammers being the Hammers lived up to their reputation of consistent inconsistency. How could a team who performed so miserably as to be dumped out of the FA Cup by lowly AFC Wimbledon, and then play even more abjectly (some would argue) against Wolves, possibly be a match for top of the table Liverpool? It is an easy one to answer. As I have written so many times before, with West Ham you never know what you are going to get. It is the West Ham way!

Considering how out of touch we had been in the matches leading up to this we performed admirably. It is hard enough to take on the top of the table team anyway without being subjected to one of the most appalling offside decisions (or rather lack of decision) that you will ever see. We were easily holding our own, and probably had the upper hand in the game when Milner, clearly in an offside position, received the ball from Lallana. He crossed to Mane who turned and scored. I’ve been writing about the need for VAR for years, and in this case, the “goal” would have comfortably been chalked off. But worse than that is the failure of the linesman to be able to see it with his eyes. Sometimes offside decisions can be difficult to call, and you cannot blame the linesman when the human eye only has fractions of inches to differentiate between offside and not offside. But this was not one of those occasions. The linesman seemed more interested in watching Lallana’s skill on the ball and found himself in the wrong position. Shocking.

What I found just as bad was the decision (or lack of it again) in the third minute of time added on, when the other linesman did not raise his flag when Origi was also clearly offside and should have put the ball in the net to win the match. That would have really compounded the injustice, but fortunately the Liverpool substitute demonstrated why he isn’t in the starting eleven.

But perhaps the most appalling aspect of the poor decisions made by the officials was listening to Klopp afterwards complaining about the referee favouring West Ham! In my opinion he had a nerve. I guess he was just trying to deflect the attention away from his players who had been outplayed by West Ham. We had the most shots on goal and deserved our point at the very least, but could easily have had all three points. Noble should definitely have scored in the second half after fine work by Anderson, and Rice once again missed a header on the stroke of half time that you would have expected him to score.

But all in all it was an excellent performance against the team on top of the league. Klopp made further excuses about injuries. But has he seen our first team squad injury list? The pressure looks like it is beginning to tell on Liverpool, and Manchester City, after recovering from their recent blip, may well have the ability to retain their title.

The Daily Telegraph had an interesting feature this week where they compared the progress of teams in the Premier League by assessing how many points they have attained at this stage of the season set against how many they had at exactly the same time in the last campaign. Liverpool top this “league” with +12, followed by Tottenham (+9), Watford (+7), and then we are one of three teams on +5 (with Arsenal and Bournemouth). Five teams have fewer points than at this stage last season with Huddersfield (-13), Burnley (-11), Manchester City (-7), Manchester United (-5), and Leicester (-2) showing their lack of progress. Having said that, Manchester City had a record breaking campaign last time, and may still win the title, without reaching the heights that they did then. They seem to have the strongest squad, and may be too strong for a nervous Liverpool team.

Today’s opponents sit 14th in the league just two places and six points below us, but only four points above the drop zone. Their next few games will decide whether they join us in the mid-table pack, or take part in the relegation dogfight. There are currently six teams in that contest who are not averaging a point a game, with Palace just above them. Their seven wins this season have been against Fulham (twice), Huddersfield, Burnley, Leicester, and most impressive of all, away wins at Wolves and Manchester City.

In fact they have picked up more points on their travels than at Selhurst Park, where they have only won three of their twelve home games. In those dozen games they have only scored 8 goals (and conceded 11), making games on their home ground the least entertaining in the Premier League in terms of goals by some margin. Away from home they have scored more than twice as many goals (and conceded more than twice as many also!). A worrying statistic is that Palace have only once this season recorded back to back victories. As they beat Fulham in their last game, this gives them the opportunity to double this.

Our head to head record against Palace is a positive one, and in fact the last seven games have resulted in wins for us or drawn games. Our last four visits to Selhurst Park have resulted in three wins and a draw. It should really have been four wins (oh Michail, why didn’t you take the ball into the corner?).

Apparently Arnautavic is now fit to resume his place in the squad, but can he displace Chicarito in the starting eleven, after the Mexican had one of his best games for us against Liverpool? They could be selected to play together but I believe that would upset the balance of the team. With the continued absence of so many players I expect the team to be as follows:

Fabianski;
Fredericks (or Zabaleta), Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell;
Rice, Noble, Snodgrass;
Antonio, Anderson;
Chicarito (or Arnautavic)

Our old boys, Tompkins and Kouyate are both doubtful due to injuries, but I notice that Zaha can play as he is in the process of challenging his ban for ironically applauding the referee who sent him off in a recent game. If his finishing could match his approach play then he would be some player but he has not been able to do this. Another statistic I noticed was that in the past two years the Palace penalty taker, Milivojevic, has scored 15 penalties, which puts him way ahead of all the other teams’ penalties in the league. I wonder how many of those kicks were awarded for fouls on Zaha?

In three of our last four visits to Selhurst Park there have been four goals scored in each match. Despite the dearth of goals at that ground in this season’s games I fully expect another four this time. If we are serious about pushing upwards to join the race for seventh place then this game is one we need to win, and I expect a 3-1 victory if we can reproduce the form of the Liverpool game. If we are not quite on the ball then there could be a repeat of last season’s 2-2 draw. And if the West Ham of the Wimbledon / Wolves games turns up then we could be on the receiving end of a 3-1 defeat.

If you fancy a small wager on our team then you can get 27/10 on a West Ham victory. A 3-1 win has odds of 28/1, and a 3-1 win with Issa Diop the unlikely scorer of the last goal in the match you can get odds of 1250/1. Any one of those three outcomes, or all three of them will do for me.

I Have A Dream, A Song To Sing: But Will It Fade And Die Or Be Tossed and Blown?

The iconic anthems of both West Ham and Liverpool take a somewhat pessimistic view on dreams. Who will be living the dream at the conclusion of tonight’s Premier League encounter between West Ham and Liverpool?

Tonight’s game at the London Stadium brings together two teams with arguably the most iconic anthems in English football – Blowing Bubbles meets You’ll Never Walk Alone.  Compared to own theme, YNWA is the Johnny-come-lately of anthems dating back to the mid-1960’s when the song was a Merseyside hit for Gerry and The Pacemakers.   As with YNWA, Bubbles also has its origins in a Broadway musical but has been associated with the Hammers since the 1920’s.  There is a common reference to dreams in both songs and depending on perspective tossed and blown might be preferable to fade and die.

Aside from iconic theme songs, there is little to compare in the history of the two clubs.  The once mighty Liverpool have a list of honours as long as a man with very long arms; while the Hammer’s trophy cabinet could easily fit in the average sized bathroom.  However, despite a cup win here and there, The Reds have endured a long barren spell in league football, stretching back almost thirty years to the black and white days of League Division One.  Many Liverpool fans will be regarding this season as their best chance of success since that famous Gerrard slip in 2014 – this is my preferred memory of Stevie G rather than his heroics in a certain cup final several years earlier.

The most favourable outcome of a Premier League season for many West Ham fans would be one where no team wins the title – there are very good cases to be made against each of the top six claiming the honour.  Personally, I have no particular axe to grind about Liverpool and have a lot of admiration for the job that Jurgen Klopp has done in his time at the club.  In reality, the title race is a two horse one – no matter what the squatters at Wembley might believe – and both Liverpool and Manchester City play open, attractive and exciting football.  From a purely footballing viewpoint I have no strong preference for one over the other but that takes nothing away from the delight I would have should West Ham manage to trip them up tonight.  The most irritating thing about Liverpool is the number of professional Scousers in the media; which means that if they do go all the way then it would be advisable to steer well clear of TV, radio and social media for most of May.

Having wobbled in their recent home game against Leicester, and with Manchester City breezing past Arsenal yesterday evening, the scene should theoretically be set for West Ham to test a nervous opposition.  Whether the Hammers have the appetite for such an occasion is less than certain from the evidence of recent performances.  Having previously beaten Manchester United and Arsenal at home perhaps West Ham can raise their game but that looks to be a long shot.

As usual injuries continue to play an unrepresentative part in preparations for the game with up to eleven players either doubtful or definitely out.  There isn’t a Peter in the West Ham squad (unless you include Pedro) but there would be few surprises should the season peter out – given that there is little to play for in the remaining four months.  A storming performance against would-be champions could perhaps be the trigger for renewed impetus.

The two main injury concerns for tonight are the fitness of Marko Arnautovic and Aaron Creswell – both of whom will reportedly undergo late fitness tests.  If Cresswell is out then Arthur Masuaku will keep his place in the much maligned left back slot.  Should Arnautovic be unavailable then it is pick one from a very poor bunch to deputise – perhaps that guy that Harry Redknapp brought on for Lee Chapman at Oxford will be in the crowd with his boots!  With Samir Nasri also almost certainly missing, the midfield will rely yet again on Declan Rice to man the barricades and Felipe Anderson to produce the guile.  An assortment of others will make up the numbers but can it be enough to worry a Liverpool defence who themselves are light on numbers?  At the other end, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where our defenders are able to shackle the visitor’s fearsome front three.  You might have guessed, I am not confident!

Kevin Fried from Leicestershire is the referee today with responsibility to keep an eye on Salah tumbling in the box – (when I said it would be great if West Ham could trip up Liverpool, I didn’t mean in the area!)  Friend was previously in charge of the Hammer’s away defeat at Brighton.

Not surprisingly the pundits are banking on an away win.  Lawro (who has tipped Liverpool to win every single match for several years) opts for 2-0 while at Sky, where Charlie Nicholas is sitting in for Paul Merson, they go for 2-1.  As much as I would love to be positive, this game has all the hallmarks of the many thumpings the Hammers have received over the years from the likes of Man City, Arsenal and, of course, Liverpool.  A fully fit Arnautovic could alter the equation a little but I sense that he will be kept back in reserve until next weekend.  Best case a 1-1 draw; worst case a four or five goal defeat.

Liverpool visit West Ham – will we see the next Premier League winners tonight?

You’ll Never Walk Alone to the London Stadium

When I began to take an interest in football in the late 1950’s I have to confess I didn’t take a lot of notice of Liverpool as they were not a top flight team at the time. I was vaguely aware of them in the early sixties when I was updating my football league ladders (given away by comics at the time) as they were prominent in Division Two, and since they were champions of that league in 1961-62 they have barely looked back. It is not as if they hadn’t had success in football prior to then, as they had been winners of the First Division title five times before, beginning in the very early twentieth century, and for the fifth time just after the Second World War.

They had been going through a lean period by their standards, having been relegated in the 1950’s, and when they were knocked out of the FA Cup in 1958-59 by non-league Worcester City, they appointed a new Scottish manager, Bill Shankly, who became a club legend that completely transformed their fortunes, and since that time they have barely looked back. Following their promotion to the top tier they finished a creditable eighth in their first season, and then in 1963-64 they were league champions. This was therefore their sixth title, but now their record stands as champions of England 18 times. Bearing in mind that the last of these was in 1990, this demonstrates their dominance of English football throughout the sixties, and especially in the 1970s and 1980s. They go into tonight’s game two points clear at the top with a game in hand, desperately seeking their first title for almost thirty years.

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When we won the FA Cup in 1964, Liverpool had never won it at the time, but they did the year after, and their record now stands as having lifted the trophy 7 times. They have also been England’s most successful team in Europe and from the 1970s onwards they have won the European Cup or UEFA Champions League five times and the UEFA Cup three times.

Given this historical background it will come as no surprise that our head to head record against the Merseysiders is not an impressive one. They have beaten us 74 times to our 28, and in the twenty-first century we have only won 7 of the 34 meetings. In fact the last four games between the sides have been disastrous for us with Liverpool winning all of them and scoring four goals in each game. No team has ever scored four goals or more against a specific opponent on five consecutive occasions in the top flight since Arsenal managed the feat in the 1930s. Oh dear, that’s the kind of statistic I shouldn’t be mentioning!

Despite our poor overall record against them we have had many memorable games against Liverpool. The two with the highest profile were both Cup Finals. In 1981 when we were a second division side we met them in the League Cup Final, and lost after a replay. In 2006, we were seconds away from a famous 3-2 victory when up stepped Steven Gerrard with a wonder goal to take the game into extra time, and we subsequently lost the penalty shoot-out. Why didn’t Lionel Scaloni put the ball high into the stands when he should have?

But enough of defeats, what about some famous victories. In 2015-16 we won 3-0 at Anfield to end one of the longest running records of defeats at that ground that stretched back to 1963. Or the season before that when we led early on 2-0, Sterling pulled one back, before Amaltifano (remember him?) scored the winner close to the end. Even in our ill-fated relegation season under Avram Grant we led 2-0, Glenn Johnson pulled one back, and then Carlton Cole scored the winner with a scorching left-footed strike. I can even remember back to 1982-83 when we led 2-0, Liverpool pulled one back through Souness, and then Sandy Clark scored to give us a 3-1 win. You can probably see a pattern emerging here. We lead 2-0, Liverpool pull one back and then we score the winner. It has happened more than once!

Delving through my football programme collection I came across the one pictured above from 50 years ago this month. I recall the game clearly as I stood on the North Bank with friends on a very sunny Saturday afternoon. West Ham took the lead in the first half when, after some excellent work out wide on the right by Geoff Hurst, he crossed the ball for John Sissons to slam high into the net in front of the South Bank. Liverpool’s equaliser came at the same end in the second half, when after excellent wing play from Ian Callaghan, he crossed the ball for Roger Hunt to head home. I remember thinking at the time that Bobby Ferguson should perhaps have done a better job at keeping it out. The game ended 1-1. Liverpool finished as runners-up to Leeds that season, although neither of them scored more goals than we did (66). However their combined goals conceded (50) matched ours exactly, highlighting that our problems at the time were nothing to do with scoring goals, but more as a result of conceding them.

We have just 14 games left this season; what have we got to play for other than pride and finishing as high in the table as we can? We are now 7 points adrift of Wolves who lie seventh, so we’ll struggle to finish at the top of the clubs beginning with W even. We have a lengthy injury list – this is one area where we are the top team in the Premier League, and the bookmakers have us at 7/1 or thereabouts to win tonight’s game. Liverpool have won 19 of their 24 games this season losing just one (to Manchester City) so those odds are not realistic, they should be much longer.

But for no logical reason football sometimes provides us with an upset. Perhaps this evening we will go into a 2-0 lead, Liverpool will then score to set up an exciting climax, but we will then grab a winner. 3-1 to West Ham. The odds on us winning the game by that score are around 60/1. I can dream, can’t I?

West Ham Dream Of Mid-table Mediocrity In The Company Of Wolves

Out of sorts and out of the cup. Will West Ham find the motivation to perform on a cold Tuesday evening just 34 miles from Stoke? Or is this the start of a long fade out to the season?

Nothing says the West Ham way better than being dumped tamely out of the FA Cup by lowly opposition.  Managers and players may come and go but the universal law of West Ham banana skins remains that pretty football without an underlying steely determination will always prove vulnerable against a resolute and tenacious opponent.

It is perverse that the club’s only chance of silverware this season was not seen as its top priority rather than a place or two in the Premier League.  You could make a case that even our second string should be easily good enough to see off a side floundering at the bottom of League 1 – even if they do put out their first team.  To some extent being drawn against another Premier League team in the early rounds of the cup would be a more attractive option – a level playing field of squad players.  It was unfortunate for our cunning squad management strategy that the manager’s preferred style of play is way beyond the competence of all but a handful of his available squad.  Those brought in to make up the numbers simply lacked desire.

Today’s opponents, Wolverhampton Wanderers, almost slipped up on their own banana skin against Shrewsbury Town but fought back for a scrambled draw to keep them in the hat as one of only seven Premier League sides remaining in the 5th round draw – each of whom will be jostling for the privilege of eventually losing to Manchester City in the final.  They do, at least, have something else to aim for other as well as the questionable distinction of finishing the season as best of the rest.

My very first recollection of any televised football match was when Wolves beat Blackburn Rovers in the 1960 FA Cup final – back in the day when players were usually called Harry, Ron, Eric, Eddie and Bill.  Wolves were an elite side at the time but have since experienced as long a barren spell as the Hammers.  In fact, their last success was lifting the League Cup in the same season that West Ham triumphed over Arsenal at Wembley in the Challenge Cup.

In tonight’s game it is reported that we will see the return of Marko Arnautovic to the West Ham starting eleven – unless there is yet another surprising U turn halfway up the M6.  This has been a very strange episode even for West Ham but, for a club with so few viable striking alternatives, a compromise agreement (even if it turns out to be short-term one) makes more sense than leaving him stewing in the reserves or letting him leave on the cheap.

The rest of the starting eleven pretty much picks itself, not because of the excellence of the incumbent players in their most recent outings but due to absence of feasible options – at least until the injury situation improves.  Motivation will be key in the game as another slow start would be suicidal.  Will the manager’s wrath after the weekend be enough to inspire?  Will there be any leadership on the pitch?  Will the players be wearing scarves as well as gloves?  It’s as much about attitude as it is ability.

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Wolves can be well pleased with their first season back in the Premier League and under the guidance of a manager (whose name commentators cannot resist repeating at every opportunity), Nuno Espirito Santo, they have a side that are always prepared to give it a go – regardless of the reputation of the opposition.  Their style of play, with plenty of energy and intensity, is of a type that has regularly unsettled West Ham this season.  If Moutinho and Neves are allowed to dictate the pace and direction of the game, then the Hammers could be in deep trouble.   Wolves are not the most threatening up front but in Traore have a player whose primary attribute is the ability to embarrass West Ham defenders.

Much will depend on the returning Declan Rice to prop up the centre of midfield (how he was missed at the weekend) and the talents and probing of Samir Nasri and Felipe Anderson in providing ammunition for Arnautovic.

New ref on the block, David Coote from Nottingham, is with us for a second time today and I hope we can impress him more than we did up at Turf Moor.  Coote has something of a card waving fetish have sent off five players this term.  Watch out for those late, mistimed tackles lads!

Lawro and Merson are unanimous in predicting a Wolves home victory by 2-0 and 2-1 respectively.  It seems impossible to argue with them on the basis of the last two performances with the best hope being that the teams consistent inconsistency will come to the rescue.  Having rested on their laurels long enough following the Arsenal win maybe a different team will show up tonight.  Perhaps Arnautovic will have a point to make and inspire us to a 2-2 draw!