A week is a long time in football. It has been a week in which West Ham’s unlikely European ambitions suffered a reality check; and where it was all change at the top with Liverpool suddenly six points clear and Manchester City dropping down to third. It will now take all of Guardiola’s legendary man-management skills to go out and buy a brand new £200 million defence in the January sales.
Having been denied a traditional Boxing Day fixture, the Hammers travel to the south coast to face Southampton in the televised Cinderella match. The challenge of keeping sufficient beer, nuts and mince pies in reserve has been a difficult one. The useless OPTA stat of the night is that if Charlie Austin manages to find the net (highly likely) then he will have scored a Premier League goal on every day of the week – apparently becoming the 26th player to do so!
A little while back this game could be viewed as one component of an eminently winnable run for the Hammers that would see them surge into the top half of the table. The Saints were a struggling, dispirited side, . However, since the appointment of Ralph Hasenhuttl (a name that will quickly become a commentators favourite alongside Nuno Espirito Santo) there has been a rapid resurgence in Southampton fortunes. Their win against Arsenal was largely down to weak defending by the Gunners but having followed that up with a win against Huddersfield, they will be full of confidence. The home side’s lowly position, in any case, was entirely down to the ludicrous decision to appoint serial failure Mark Hughes as manager (who makes these decisions?) and it is difficult to look beyond Huddersfield, Burnley and Fulham for the relegation places.
Injury problems continue to plague West Ham and, although there is some talk of a Marko Arnautovic return, it would be a huge surprise if he turned out tonight. Assuming that Fabian Balbuena is unavailable then his replacement by Angelo Ogbonna may well be the only change from the side that started against Watford. In an ideal world, Manuel Pellegrini would probably like to rest some of the older legs (and even the younger ones) but he has limited scope to do so.
The most recent West Ham match refereed by tonight’s man-in-the-middle, Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire), ended in an 8-0 over Macclesfield in the EFL Cup. What chance of a re-run tonight? After an early season red mist where he made three dismissals in his first four games, Pawson has settled down to become an enthusiastic yellow card issuer only.
Sky Sport’s pundit Paul Merson is expecting a Christmas cracker of a 2-2 draw while Lawro (the BBC Football Expert as he likes to think of himself), fresh from correctly forecasting the West Ham – Watford score, has another 2-0 defeat in mind for the Hammers.
Volatility is the preserve of every football fan. In this world, our team can swing from unbeatable to clueless in the blink of an eye, and with it expectations from tonight’s match have been significantly downgraded. I am sure that things remain on a much more even keel in the dressing room and that, as we speak, Pellegrini is devising a cunning plan on his chalkboard and Powerpoint flip charts to take the wind out of Southampton’s sails. The worry is that an effective balance in midfield is still elusive for the Hammers and it struggles in both providing support to the defence and acting as a springboard for attacks. The hosts are likely to take advantage of these shortcomings with both Redmond and Ings coming into a run of form.
Despite the manager’s more enterprising approach to the game there are still too many unnecessary, unforced back passes to the keeper for my liking. I have never seen the stats for this and would be interested to see how we compare with others. With Lucasz Fabianski having a pass success rate below 50%, the player in possession might just as well hoof it up-field. With few exceptions, I consider every back pass to the keeper to represent a failure in the team’s ability to create space and opportunity.
I would love to see a win but sense that three points could well be beyond us given the lengthy injury list; a draw would be a creditable return. I am also hoping that the strange free-kick routine – the short pass and stop before putting in a cross – finally pays off tonight.