Gareth Southgate has been featured in the media this week bemoaning the shortage of English players represented in the Premier League, a situation which hit a record low at the weekend with less than 25% of all starters eligible to wear the three lions. West Ham were slightly above average with three of the starting eleven (27%) as potential qualifyers. It is a similar story at managerment level where only five clubs (if you include Chris Hughton at Brighton) can boast that dying breed that is an English gaffer. Today’s visitors are one of that select group and today we can welcome our old Sheffield United friend, and the most famous anagram in football, Colin Wanker. Now in his thirteenth managerial position at a league club, Warnock has been at the helm at Cardiff for the past two, largely successful, years.
Games against Cardiff are the closest that we get these days to exotic European competition and with a little imagination it might be possible to recreate those special sepia tinted nights under the floodlights on a chilly winter’s evening. Take you own Bovril and Percy Dalton peanuts to complete the illusion.
West Ham will be aiming for their seventh consecutive win against the Bluebirds having beaten them three times in the 2013/14 Premier League season (including a 3rd round League Cup tie) and three times in 2011/12 Championship season (including the two legged Playoff semi-final).
Cardiff have picked up just one of their eleven points on the road this season (a “dreadful scoreless draw” according to the Telegraph against the ten-men of Huddersfield) and although there have been heavy defeats, at Chelsea and Liverpool, they managed to keep both Tottenham and Everton down to a single goal margin. The Hammers may well go into the match as favourites, buoyed by victory at Newcastle, but this will be no walkover. Cardiff will look to defend deep and will be well organised. The experience in recent years is that it is just the type of game that West Ham struggle to impose themselves on. Still there can be no better time for Manuel Pellegrini to achieve his first back to back wins as West Ham manager.
Team selection speculation for the game is centred around defensive availability. In normal circumstances, I would have expected there to be no discretionary changes made to the team that started at Newcastle. However, there has been much talk about a well-earned rest for Pablo Zabaleta’s ageing legs as well as fitness doubts over Fabian Balbuena and Aaron Cresswell. Three changes to a relatively stable back four could prove disastrous and the idea of twin scapegoats-in-chief Michail Antonio and Arthur Masuaku as full back partners sounds unthinkable.
In the absence of inside knowledge on the extent of the injuries, my anticipated lineup relies even more heavily on guesswork than usual. I am certain Pellegrini will continue with the twin spearhead of Marko Arnautovic and Chicharito during the upcoming set of benign fixtures. I would also expect Andy Carroll and Jack Wilshere to play some part tonight.
Cardiff have no new reported injury concerns and are likely to keep the same side that did so well to come from behind last Friday to win and nudge Wolves further in their slow slide down the table.
Tonight’s referee is occasional Premier League whistle-blower Graham Scott from Oxfordshire. This is only his fourth top flight match of the season, although that did include the Arsenal – West Ham clash in August, the game which launched the Gunners on their long unbeaten run. I don’t recall any particular refereeing bloopers arising in that game.
Top pundits Lawro and Merson are both going for home wins at 2-0 and 3-0 respectively. It is the sort of game where if West Ham score once then they might go on and get a hat-full. But it will be no easy task to break down a deep=lying, disciplined and determined defence. The Hammers attacking strength is through swift counter attacking and there has been little evidence of getting behind defensive lines of teams with minimal attacking intent. Even so, I have to remain optimistic and will align with Merson at 3-0.