Leicester City, the most unlikely 5000-1 winners of the Premier League just over a season ago are the next visitors to the London Stadium in the first game of the weekend on Friday night. This is their fourth consecutive season in the top flight and their 50th in their history, compared to our 60. They returned after a period of ten years out in 2014-15, and struggled throughout that season. With 29 games played they had amassed just 19 points and were seven points adrift of safety. They looked odds-on to return to the Championship, but with Nigel Pearson at the helm they won seven of their last nine games to finish on a respectable 41 points in 14th position, just two places below us. Early in that season we had beaten them 2-0 at Upton Park with goals from Carroll and Downing, but we were the losers in the return, which was one of their seven wins in the run-in, going down 2-1 with Kouyate scoring our goal.
The following season was the stuff of fairy tales and has been written about at length. Suffice to say we will probably have to wait another 5000 years for a repeat. Pearson had been sacked and Ranieri took over to mastermind one of the most astonishing stories in the history of football. They beat us 2-1 at Upton Park in our first home game of the final season there (a Frenchman scored our goal), but we were unlucky in the return at their place near the end of the season, when leading 2-1 in the 95th minute we failed to retain possession of the ball (just for a change!!) and then Carroll conceded what to most observers was a dubious penalty decision, and we ended with a draw. Carroll and Cresswell were our scorers that day.
Last season (2016-17) they came back down to earth and eventually finished in 12th place (we finished 11th). Ranieri was sacked in February after five consecutive defeats, and replaced by Shakespeare, who began his tenure with five straight wins, although four of them were home games, and Hull, Stoke, Sunderland and ourselves were not the most demanding of opponents. They did the double over us winning 1-0 at their place, and 3-2 at the London Stadium, where goals from Lanzini and Ayew were not enough to complete an unlikely comeback in a 3-2 defeat. They did perform exceptionally well in the Champions League, before just going out at the quarter-final stage to Atletico Madrid.
This season, after a poor start winning just one of their first eight games, the Bard himself was sacked and they now have Claude Puel in charge. They have since picked up a creditable 7 points from their last four games and now sit 12th in the table on 13 points, winning 3, drawing 4 and losing 5 of their 12 games. This puts them out of our reach even if we can manage a victory in this game, but we desperately need to win the match to ensure that we don’t fall further behind in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table. Their away record comprises a win at Swansea, draws at Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Stoke, and defeats at Arsenal and Manchester United.
So many of our players had poor games at Watford that it hard to second guess the team that Moyes will select to try to achieve what would be an important win. One player who did do himself justice was Masuaku who had a fine 20 minute cameo, and I would like to see him selected in a more advanced role than full back. He showed an ability to take on and beat opponents as well as putting in decent crosses. I’d like to see Sakho and possibly Martinez start up front to give us greater mobility in that position, which would mean no place for Carroll who can be a potential liability. Lanzini needs to have a central role to be effective, not stuck out on the left. I hope that Rice enters the manager’s plans, perhaps filling a defensive midfield role protecting the defence, possibly alongside Obiang who has not been at his best recently, but in my view would be preferable to Noble and Kouyate.
When I looked at the bookmakers’ odds for the game, both Leicester and ourselves are currently priced at around 17/10 to win the game, with 23/10 on the draw. Surely we can’t play as badly again as we did at Watford where we were totally outclassed, yet could have possibly scored four goals from clear-cut chances. I would like to think that Hernandez would have made much more of the goalscoring opportunities that fell to Kouyate (twice), Arnautavic and Lanzini, although Gomes did pull off one tremendous double save.
The statistics from the Watford game apparently show that collectively, West Ham players covered more ground than in any other league game this season. But that alone is quite clearly not the answer, and Moyes and his coaching team will have had to work hard this week to try to ensure an improved performance for this game. The atmosphere has been described as “toxic” around the club, and I hate to imagine the reaction if we concede the first goal in the game. Scoring first would give everyone a lift, and that is what we must hope for.