Although England’s relative success has put an unexpected positive slant on the UEFA Nations Carabao Cup, it is a welcome return to Premier League action this weekend when Manchester City are the visitors to the London Stadium. However, the almost certain defeat to the almost inevitable 2018/19 Champions is a slightly less appealing prospect.
I find myself ambivalent towards Manchester City. On one hand, they play an outstanding style of football under the leadership of probably the finest manager in the game today. On the other hand, their success epitomises everything that is wrong in modern football – as the game moves ever further away from the ordinary spectator, under the spell of the TV mega-money-masters and their global armchair audience. In a week where there have been announcements on increased capacity at the London Stadium it is ironic that it would only make an incremental difference to the club’s finances. It is only the lucrative media and commercial deals that come with regular worldwide TV exposure that can make any meaningful difference.
Not that I selectively begrudge City their good fortune. The football authorities are unconcerned about the source of the money flooding into the game and, had it not been City, then someone else would be reaping the benefit of the tainted Arab millions. Had it been West Ham, I doubt I would be complaining too loudly, although I like to think I would be grounded enough to know that success had been bought.
Although, there are still two other unbeaten clubs in the Premier League it would be a huge surprise to me if the title was not wrapped up and Etihad bound before the daffodils are out. City could probably field two sides and have both finish in the top four. To be honest, it really wouldn’t bother me if the ‘big clubs’ did eventually break away to form their European Super League – provided that they had to resign from the Premier League to do so. Any league without the jeopardy of relegation would be a bonkers, like a Harlem Globetrotter themed circus. If it had the benefit of returning domestic competition to a degree of competitiveness, rather than the money-driven procession that it has become, then I would be happy to trade that for missing out on seeing the best players.
This is City’s fourth visit to the London Stadium and the aggregate of their four wins currently stands at scored thirteen, conceded one. Any chance of Manuel Pellegrini stemming that run against his old club would seem slim. Perhaps a more respectable score-line should be his main focus. After all, City had a bit of wobble last time out, only scoring a half of their normal six goal tally and doing no better against Manchester United than the Hammers had done. Any expectation that West Ham will get anything out of the game, though, requires the most super strength claret and blue prescription spectacles available.
There were some interesting stats published in the week that showed that only Cardiff had run less distance than the Hammers during the course of the season to date. Each of the leading teams had covered far more ground. Not only that but West Ham had two players in the top six of those covering the least distant – Marko Arnautovic (2nd) and Arthur Masuaku (4th). It is difficult to draw any precise conclusions as to whether this demonstrates a lack of fitness among the players or merely reflects the manager’s preferred tactics. Either way there does appear to be a relationship between ground covered and league position which does not augur well.
With Mark Noble returning from suspension at least Pellegrini will have one of his key runners back in the side. Noble’s influence on the side is something of an enigma. He looks off the pace, rarely offers much creatively and yet the side is generally worse in his absence. He will replace the suspended Robert Snodgrass this weekend and the only other potential change that I see Pellegrini making is a start for Michail Antonio in place of Grady Diangana.
In other news there are rumours of a return to action for both Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll. The best that either can hope for is a place on the bench but it is good to have options and competition.
As for the match itself, it is going to need to be a monumental backs-to-the-wall performance, denying space to prevent Silva and De Bruyne slicing through the middle and stopping Sterling and Sane exploiting the full-back vulnerability. City don’t have the greatest defence but then they don’t need to. If anyone can rely on a ‘we’re gonna score (at least) one more than you’ philosophy then Guardiola can. Whether West Ham have the wit, pace and cunning to snatch a goal remains to be seen. Perhaps Arnie will have an inspired afternoon to further what he sees as the next step in his career.
Another stat that I picked up on during the International break is that City have yet to concede in the final 30 minutes of any league game. I haven’t bothered to fact check this but it seems plausible enough. So, if we are behind after an hour you can think about calling it a day.
The referee will be Andre Marriner from the West Midlands, making it his first gig with the Hammers this season. Marriner has only showed two red cards in twelve matches but I have a horrible sinking feeling that we will not finish the game with the full complement of players.
Unsurprisingly, the pundits are predicting a routine away win for the Manchester side: Merson at 1–3 and Lawro at 0-2. It would be nice to think that the Hammers can make a game of it but experience suggest that this isn’t very probable. While it may be possible to record a best ever effort against City at the London Stadium (by keeping the goals against below four) coming away with any points would be a very long shot indeed. If only my own shocking lack of belief could lull them into a false sense of security.