Earlier in the week I had planned to begin my review on the assertion that surely this would be West Ham’s last encounter with an Arsene Wenger Arsenal side. That speculation has been subsequently overtaken by events as the Frenchman announced that he would jump rather than wait to be pushed from his long running position as Gunner’s manager. It has been a reign that has had many highs but one which, in recent years, has seen his team fall away from pace setters to also rans in the top six stakes.
The timing of the announcement was unusual and I will admit, to borrow from Arsene’s repertoire, that “I didn’t see it” coming! What effect it will have on the afternoon’s proceedings and Arsenal’s priorities is now a puzzle. My hope was that Wenger was prepared to put all the Arsenal ‘ouefs’ into the Europa League basket as he went all out in search of the rear entry into next season’s Champion’s League qualification. Now the conundrum is whether to go out with one last trophy or failure to finish in the top six as Burnley remain hot on their heels. At the same time those Arsenal fans who have been vociferously calling for his head are now able to get back behind him and create an emotional afternoon at the Emirates Stadium. My original theory that the Hammers could take sneaky advantage of a half-hearted Arsenal is now up in the air.
West Ham’s failure to beat Stoke last Monday leaves them with a bit a work to do before any lingering thoughts of relegation can be entirely dismissed – at least we cannot now finish bottom of table. The chances of either Stoke or Southampton collecting enough points to overhaul the Hammers are slim but it is still possible and it will be as well for the health of all concerned to gather those additional two or three points sooner rather than later. Then we can get down to the messy business of a World Cup year transfer window where our hopes can once again be dashed by a raft of over-aged, underwhelming panic signings that do little to resolve the underlying weaknesses in the squad.
Head to Head
Today will be the 42nd West Ham fixture in all competitions against an Arsene Wenger managed Arsenal. Of those past encounters the Hammers have won just five, drawn ten and lost twenty six. Three of those wins came in a period of just over a year between February 2006 and April 2007 while the most recent was the famous season opener in August 2015 (the only win in the last 21). The remaining victory (and most memorable for me) was in October 1999 courtesy of a Paolo Di Canio brace in an incident packed 2-1 win at Upton Park.
By all accounts, apart from the long term injured, the only other player not available for selection is James Collins. It is probable that David Moyes will remain in safety first mode to reach the survival target one point at a time. His dilemma being that although Arsenal are now very suspect at the back they still have more than enough flair and movement in forward positions to dazzle West Ham if they do not have sufficient bodies as well as organisation and concentration in their defensive ranks. Thus I believe Moyes will stick with the 3-4-2-1 formation with Marko Arnautovic once again given the free lone striker role. The only uncertainty for me is who the two immediately behind him will be – quite possibly the returning Manuel Lanzini alongside Joao Mario.
Many supporters will be hoping to see a start for Javier Hernandez but I expect to see him once again a little pea’d off on the bench. Likewise Andy Carroll will be used as an impact substitute as needed.
It will be interesting to see whether Joe Hart keeps his place following his gaffe on Monday and the newspaper talk of the Hammers wanting to keep him (for some reason) beyond the expiry of his loan. I can’t help thinking that if it had been Adrian that fumbled the ball leading to the Stoke goal he would be straight back to the bench.
Difficult to judge the Arsenal approach to the game. In recent Premier League games in the lead up to European action they put out weakened sides and looked below par despite (fortunately) seeing off both Southampton and Stoke. The players that always worry me in exposing West Ham weaknesses are Ozil and Bellerin while Welbeck is in a rare run of goal-scoring form.
The Man In The Middle
Lee Mason from Lancashire is today’s referee. The Hammers have had little luck with Mason this term recording defeats away at Southampton and at home to Newcastle and Burnley. In his 23 outings this season he has shown 61 red and 4 yellow cards.
A rare alignment between Larwo and Merson who both believe that Arsenal will stroll to a leisurely 2-0 win. I think we have a chance as no matter what is said in the dressing room the Gunners will either have a weakened team out or else the players will have at least one eye on Thursday’s semi-final. I can see us sneaking that odd goal win but would be happy to settle for a draw.