In the past, an unwelcome seasonal dilemma was whether to go to the match or help with the family Christmas shopping. In the days before 1994, shops didn’t open on a Sunday either and unless you intended to buy all your presents at a petrol station time was at a premium. Happily, subject to the availability of mobile data or a wifi signal, it is now possible to go online during the half-time interval to buy your loved one a bargain set of festive saucepans or perhaps a stylish facial sauna, from the comfort of your own stadium seat. For balance, I will point out that lady supporters may do likewise to surprise their special man with the great small of Brut or a value pack of Argyll patterned socks.
Meanwhile on the football field, West Ham will be endeavouring to complete a third bird battering on the bounce where, having seen off the Magpies and the Bluebirds, they now face the Eagles from south of the river. Bird themed football clubs are becoming an endangered species in the top flight and it would be no surprise if one of more of these were seen flocking to the Championship next season where birds continue to exist in greater numbers (swans, owls, throstles, robins, peacocks and so on.)
The Hammers are unbeaten in their last six Premier League games against Palace having won three and drawn three. Both matches last season ended in draws and the last Palace win was at Upton Park back in February 2015. Another stat from Premier League games between the two clubs is that the team scoring first has never lost – well apart from that time when the floodlights failed (a televised game in November 1997) where Palace had held a 2-0 lead at one stage before the game was abandoned at 2-2. West Ham won the re-arranged fixture 4-1.
It will be disappointing if we do not improve on the record against Palace this afternoon. As Manuel Pellegrini pointed out at his pre-match press conference, if we could wipe out the first four games of the season, his team would be sitting sixth in the table. While that is impossible to do, there is no reason why the Hammers should not be close to the European places come the end of the year. Yes, I know I am getting ahead myself but what is the point if we can’t dream.
The fly in the West Ham ointment is the enforced absence of Marko Arnautovic. He has been threatening an injury layoff for some time and will now be missing for the next four weeks at least. It is true that Arnie has not been at the top of his game just recently but he brings a strength, power and mobility to the side that is not available elsewhere in the squad. He is an important part of Pellegrini’s plan and is the focal point of most attacking play – he will be badly missed. Because they have both banged in a couple of goals in recent weeks there could be a temptation to consider a Little Pea-Perez partnership up front, but I don’t see how this works in practice – too static and passive to make the required off-the-ball contribution. The alternative are a striking start are Andy Carroll or Michail Antonio while the wildcard is Xande Silva (from the Triple X programme). It might be too soon to give the injury prone Geordie a start but I feel he will get the nod.
The rest of the selection should be self-explanatory with the return of Pablo Zabaleta and Fabian Balbuena to the defence but, otherwise, as you were!
Palace are likely to start with two former Hammers with pretty-boy James Tomkins in defence and the permanently perplexed Cheikhou Kouyate in midfield. It will be a Slug Versus Sloth midfield contest where we can decide whether Mark Noble and Kouyate make more effective opponents than they did team-mates. With Benteke missing the greatest Palace threats will be the dribbling and diving of Zaha and the set pieces of Milivojevic. I believe that by playing Zaha in a central role it gives our defence a better chance of handling the menace than if he was terrorising the full-backs.
Today’s referee is Anthony Taylor from Cheshire who was in charge of West Ham’s season opener at Anfield back in August. He is another referee who loves yellows but is a little more reluctant with the reds.
Pundits Lawro and Merson both see a routine 2-0 win for the Hammers today. Palace will be smarting after the manner of their defeat at Brighton and I think we can expect a very tight encounter against very defensively minded visitors. Roy Hodgson will be looking for a disciplined and organised reaction from his team. A fast start, high intensity, concentration and patience will all be necessary in order to break down the resistance and to avoid any sucker punches. I am currently in hopelessly optimistic mode and confident of another three goal winning performance. Whereas my co-blogger, Richard Bennett, has his money on Issa Diop getting on the score-sheet, but I have a dream that it will be Arthur Masuaku’s turn to add some credit to his flagging popularity balance by nabbing himself the opening goal – perhaps in the style of Frank Lampard at Elland Road.