Thumbing through the fixture list a few weeks ago and it seemed reasonable to chalk up this weekend’s fixture at Newcastle as one of those eminently winnable games that would see the Hammers rise up towards the top half of Premier League table. With the Geordies floundering at the bottom of the table surely we would be going into the game with Rafa Beneath-us! As it turns out West Ham have now slipped below Newcastle on goal difference.
Such optimism, however, would also have needed to disregard the woeful record that West Ham have on their travels to St James’ Park. The only win this century came when Kevin Nolan scored the only goal of a tight encounter in November 2012. Prior to that, it is necessary to travel as far back in time as October 1998, when two Ian Wright goals helped the Hammers secure a convincing 3-0 success. Even though Newcastle have frequently struggled in the intervening years they have routinely found West Ham to be one of the more generous visitors to the north-east.
My impression is that, in recent seasons, Newcastle have collected their points from sudden spurts of inspired form – lengthy droughts followed by unexpected winning runs. They come into today’s game off the back of three straight league wins against Bournemouth, Watford and Burnley that has lifted them out of the relegation places . It is West Ham’s challenge to determine whether this is now the middle or the end of the current spurt. History does not offer much encouragement.
Anxious supporters are yet again faced with the cliff-hanging, soap opera story-line of whether Marko Arnautovic will be fit enough to start the game. Has there ever been a game where he hasn’t started to hobble around at some point in proceedings? The team rely heavily on Arnie and there are few options consistent or suitable to the way West Ham play in his absence. There is, of course, the possibility of Big Andy facing his boyhood club and it would be an opportune moment for him to open his West Ham account against them, at the seventh time of asking. If Arnie is ruled out then it could well be a Chicharito – Michail Antonio combo to provide the semblance of an attacking threat. I hope there is no room on the bench for Lucas Perez with his space more usefully warmed by Xande Silva – at least there would be potential there!
The only change at the back will be the cyclical rotation of Aaron Creswell for Arthur Masuaku, while the defence will continue to be exposed by our weakness in defending as a team down the flanks. It could be an early Christmas present for Matt Ritchie who terrorised West Ham in the equivalent game last season.
In midfield the certain starters are Declan Rice and Felipe Anderson. Then it would be a case of pick your favourite three out of Mark Noble, Pedro Obiang, Robert Snodgrass, Grady Diangana and Michail Antonio – ten possible combinations (or is it permutations) but with minimal difference in effectiveness. The other name to throw into the mix is Jack Wilshere, back after injury, but it is likely too soon for a start. I believe that Wilshere will become a good signing for the Hammers in providing creative options from central midfield once there is a better balance around him (and provided he steers clear of injury). As I have mentioned before, I would also like to see Nathan Holland involved in the first team set-up – apart from Rice he has looked the most accomplished of our academy players; admittedly only from what I have seen online.
My anticipated Pellegrini line-up is predicated on a sense that he will plump for experience in what will be a difficult encounter.
Newcastle’s recent successful run has come in the absence of Shelvey and Lascelles. With both players now recovered from injury it would be nice to think that Rafa will disrupt a winning side but this seems unlikely.
The matchday referee is Paul Tierney from Lancashire. This is his first Hammers outing of the season but he has some previous with the Toon having awarded a controversial penalty against them in their home defeat by Chelsea – will he think that he owes them something? Tierney is free and easy with the yellow cards but has yet to show red so far this season.
On the pundit front, Lawro is predicting a 2-0 home win which in Lawro land constitutes a pasting, given his usual conservative approach to punditry. Paul Merson also fancies the home side to extend their winning run with a 2-1 success. My own glass is half empty on this one because I fear another traditionally slow start would be severely punished by a confident and rampant home side. Newcastle may not have the most fearsome attacking force but they have the ability to exploit the Hammer’s weaknesses. Ki Sung-yueng likes to get on the score-sheet against us and Mo Diame may have a point to prove. It will be a tough afternoon and we will do well to come away with a share of the spoils – 2-2!