If only Michail Antonio had taken the ball to the corner flag or launched it into Sainsbury’s car park rather than chipping it back to the Palace keeper then West Ham might have found theselves sitting in ninth place, above Everton, and seemingly out of the relegation dogfight, which according to most observers comprises only eleven teams. Then again, that sliding doors moment, may have seen the Hammers remain under the stewardship of Slaven Bilic and his Carry-On-Coaching team with the unimaginable dire consequences that such a situation might have created.
Of all the managerial changes that have taken place in the Premier League so far this season, it is in the boardrooms of the London Stadium and Selhurst Park where the Directors will be most effusively slapping themselves on the back, oblivious to their own poor decision making that led to the respective crises in the first place. Yet with this season proving that our league is the most competitive in the world (at least as far as relegation places are concerned) the mid-table standing that the two clubs currently enjoy offers little in the way of real comfort.
West Ham will be looking to forget the inconvenience of having to go through the motions of a highly predictable FA Cup defeat by Wigan while Palace will hope to recover from their dreadful defensive display at the Emirates. Why the schedulers saw fit to arrange so many games in January (and interfere with the far more newsworthy transfer window) is a mystery but the Hammers have the opportunity to start a calendar year unbeaten in their first five league games for the first time since 1974; a run that, back then, eventually extended to ten games either side of a FA Cup defeat to Hereford United.
Head to Head
The last twelve competitive games against Palace show four apiece as far as wins, draws and defeats are concerned. In the last twelve encounters on home turf (which date back to 1972) West Ham have won six and lost three.
If a low key and unspectacular exit from the cup was the unspoken objective then there must be huge disappointment that West Ham came away from the game with another serious injury and a long term suspension. The injury list is a long one, and that it includes bothh Marko Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini means that any offensive threat will be at a premium. It is probable that at least a few of the walking wounded out of Mark Noble, Cheikhou Kouyate, Winston Reid, Andre Ayew and Michail Antonio will be available for tonight’s clash. In the circumstances there must be a temptation to rush Antonio back but past performance suggests that this would be a massive risk.
Almost certainly there will be a first league start for João Mário Naval da Costa Eduardo in midfield and there doesn’t seem any viable alternative to using Javier Hernandez once more as lone striker, despite all the evidence that it is not a role that he is anywhere close to accomplished in.
Palace are not without their own selection problems with Roy Hodgson claiming that he only has eighteen players to choose from. There is a high probability of their still being one Sakho out on the pitch tonight as the Eagles welcome back defender Mamadou; while Cabaye and Ward are also back in contention for a place. Loftus-Cheek is missing and so it will be Zaha (and his tendency to go off-balance in the penalty area) who carries the greatest threat to the Hammer’s unbeaten run.
The Man in the Middle
Anyone looking for an omen of a lucky referee will be disappointed to see Neil Swarbrick picking up the match-ball when the teams walk out tonight. Swarbrick was previously in charge of heavy defeats by Newcastle and Liverpool this season. In seventeen outings during 2017/18, Swarbrick has forty-five yellow cards to his name but remains a red card virgin.
Lawro returns to his 1-1 safety net for this clash while Merson expects a 1-2 away victory. I can see pragmatism ruling the day in this one with both teams adopting a safety first approach that lacks in any real adventure. My own sense is also a draw and it would be no surprise should it remain a goalless one.