I am not sure what the opposite of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object is but we may well find out at St James’ Park this afternoon as both sides strive to improve on their 100% losing starts to the season. Will the powder puff Newcastle attack overcome the wafer thin West Ham defence or will Geordie passion be extinguished by the Javier Hernandez get out of jail free card? To claim that this a relegation six pointer before the blackberries have ripened is premature in the extreme but the outcome of today’s game could play a major part in deciding the Premier League sack race; or more precisely who the first manager to leave his post will be. There is added intrigue in the form of persistent speculation linking Rafa Benitez as the next in line for the hot seat at West Ham.
In a cruel twist of fate I ended up watching both of Newcastle’s opening Premier League fixtures live on TV. They were well beaten in the opener by a cruise control Tottenham with the Toon offering little once their initial enthusiasm had died down and Shelvey was deservedly sent-off. The follow-up uninspiring encounter with Huddersfield was a more even, but drab, affair which was decided by the game’s only real quality moment when Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy scored the only goal of the game. There is clearly an air of smouldering doom surrounding Bentitez and his frustrations with player recruitment could result in a spontaneous eruption at any moment.
“What I think happened is they (Newcastle) tried but maybe they were unable to get those targets that they wanted. Maybe they were thinking too big and those players, they didn’t want to come.”
– Slaven Bilic surely being ironic about Newcastle’s transfer policy
Both teams were in EFL Cup action during the week and, whereas the Hammers came through unscathed with a competent performance against League Two Cheltenham, Newcastle were dumped out, after extra time, at home to Championship Nottingham Forest; albeit with a definite second string line-up. Whether West Ham will be buoyed by success or Newcastle humbled by defeat remains to be seen.
Head to Head
Newcastle hold the edge in the all-time record between the two clubs having won 40% of the 129 meetings to West Ham’s 31%. In the last twelve encounters the Hammers have seen four wins, five defeats and three draws.
It has been a much more one-sided affair for games at St James’ Park with West Ham having won only nine times (and lost thirty six ) out of sixty five attempts. In the last twelve away fixtures the solitary Hammers success was a 1-0 win, courtesy of a Kevin Nolan goal, in November 2012. Even the last two away meetings when Newcastle were battling for survival both ended in relatively comfortable victories for the hosts.
Marko Arnautovic is suspended for West Ham but Winston Reid is the only senior player missing through injury. This means not only the potential return of Manuel Lanzini but also a phenomenon rarer than a total solar eclipse with both Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho available for selection at the same time. Lanzini’s running and creativity have been sorely missed but he may have to settle for a place on the bench if deemed not yet ready to start. It would be a surprise if Carroll is included in the match-day squad but who knows; he has faced his old club in West Ham colours five times but has so far defied football convention by failing to score.
Elsewhere Cheikhou Kouyate is set to return in a midfield where we will be able to assess the extent of Slaven Bilic’s marble lossage if he persists in selecting Mark Noble ahead of Pedro Obiang. In defence we should expect the return of seven goal Joe Hart between the sticks and to see 34 year old James Collins start in place of 34 year old Jose Fonte.
“We will see if we can improve as much as we can this week. I will try to do my job. How much can I improve the team? It depends on how well we work and how much the players can learn.”
– Rafa Benitez has the weight of the world on his shoulders
Newcastle are without the injured Karl Darlow, DeAndre Yedlin, Paul Dummett and Florian Lejeune plus the suspended Shelvey. The Toon could see a welcome return for Dwight Gayle who must be one of the most ineffective strikers in the Premier League.
Man in the Middle
Neil Swarbrick from Lancashire is today’s referee. Swarbrick had a full set when refereeing three West Ham home games last season that saw a win against Palace, a draw with Middlesbrough and defeat to Liverpool. This will be his second Premier League match of the season having previously officiated at the Everton v Stoke game on the opening weekend.
BBC’s Lawro has gone for a 1-1 draw while Paul Merson has predicted a 2-0 win for the Hammers.
I see a number scenarios for this one depending on what happens during Newcastle’s expected early surge. Whoever scores the opening goal will go on to win and provided that the Hammers do not get off to a typical slow start I can imagine a rare 1-0 victory to bring back from the north-east.