It is only a fighting comeback from Stoke at home to Swansea yesterday that prevents this match from being billed as top versus bottom. West Ham with the worst goal difference and joint worse goals conceded in the division take on rampant, runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. The cash rich Arab lottery winners have already scored forty-four goals this season (conceding only nine) and could easily bring up their half-century by the end of this afternoon’s encounter.
Many of us might have looked at City’s rise to fame and fortune as the prototype promised land of next levels after we followed their example by moving from an old much loved home into a new stadium at the end of an athletics tournament. It is there, however, that the comparison currently ends and in terms of any other metric – professionalism, flair, class, talent, organisation, ambition, training facilities, half-time pies – the gap between the two clubs is one of several divisions rather than just the length of the Premier League. Perhaps one day West Ham will also be bought by a small middle-eastern country – probably just as the oil runs out!
Any concept of competitiveness in today’s game is as tenuous as if it were a bunch non-league postmen, plumbers and supermarket shelf-stackers turning up for a third round cup tie against illustrious top flight superstars; with not even the hint of a potential banana skin in sight. David Moyes claim that “I’ve never gone into any game thinking we’ve not got a chance of winning” will surely be put to the test today.
Head to Head
Historically any trip to Manchester and Liverpool has been undertaken with hope rather expectation but, of those four confrontations, the one against City, prior to their windfall at least, would have offered the greatest promise. Even so, West Ham have only come away from the away fixture with all the points on twelve out of fifty three attempts. Most recently, the Hammers have won only once (lost ten) in the last twelve visits.
West Ham are reportedly missing Carroll, Hernandez, Reid, Collins, Fonte and Byram through injury. Leaden footed Joe Hart is thankfully ineligible due to the terms of his loan deal and so Adrian gets a long overdue opportunity to impress in a Premier League game.
I have read various team news speculation during the week about formations and lineups which range from pragmatic damage limitation to the more bizarre including suggestions of playing Zabaleta at centre back or in midfield; strange that those having criticised Bilic for playing players out of position would believe that such an idea would have any more legs than the player himself. You can’t fault Pablo’s spirit (and a return to the scene of his many achievements will be emotional) but he is well past his best before date at this level.
There will be probable returns for Antonio and Rice in what will undoubtedly turn out to be a backs to the wall, massed defence, bus-parking exercise – until we are eventually sliced open by City’s quick and slick inter-passing play. The frailty in the centre of midfield is likely to be the most easily exposed and exploited of West Ham’s many obvious weaknesses.
City are without Stones and Mendy but have sufficient £50 million replacements to put out a decent enough starting eleven, which may worryingly also see the return of Sane.
The Man in the Middle
Mike Dean doesn’t have far to travel from his Wirral home to take charge of this afternoon’s game. Dean was witness to the only highlight of the Hammer’s season to date when he ref’d the EFL cup win over free-falling Tottenham Hotspur. In eleven games this season Dean has issued thirty-six yellow cards and just one red one (Raheem Sterling at Bournemouth).
Even the usually cautious Lawro has predicted a 3-0 win for City while Merson is going one better at 4-0. Anything less than four will have a better than expected feel about it but I fear it will be worse, particularly with the lack of character and leadership on the field. Once the first goal goes in heads are likely to drop faster than London Stadium attendances in the Championship. Having predicted a midweek win at Goodison I would be more than happy to have my clairvoyant skills shown up once again but my contingency is a course of mild sedation before the match kicks off.