Having taken all three points from the home game against Fulham, I make it that West Ham are now safe from relegation this season. Even if the Hammers embarked on an eleven match losing streak we would still manage to survive having accumulated 36 points. Huddersfield and Fulham seem certain to go and it is looking increasingly like a battle between Cardiff, Southampton and Brighton for the final spot.
At the other end of the Premier League only those wishing to make the league seem more exciting than it actually is (TV pundits and Spurs supporters) can see anything other than a two horse race – between tonight’s money-bagged hosts Manchester City and perennial Cinderella’s Liverpool. Almost inevitably, City’s far superior squad depth will see them through to a probable domestic treble – they will face sterner tests on the European front. For all of Liverpool’s superficial gloss; the flashy spoilers, spotlights, alloy wheels and in-car entertainment system they are still only powered by a 1.3 litre engine.
West Ham’s task tonight is to try and keep the interest going for as long as possible by somehow preventing the Sky-Blues from taking all three points. That is the optimistic view. At the other extreme, we can but hope that the exertion of extra time and penalties at the weekend plus the absence of a few key City players (notably Fernandinho) will serve to keep the score down to single figures. Although West Ham frequently reserve their best performances for games against the top sides they can also be guilty of early capitulation and easily overrun. Away form is not great with no wins and just one point since the turn of the year.
Former City supremo, Manuel Pellegrini, will be hoping for a better outcome than in the season’s reverse fixture at the London Stadium in November, where a much-too-open Hammer’s side were easily beaten by four goals to nil. Despite having the luxury of a long break prior to the Fulham game, the manager has still been talking about squad rotation as a means of coping with two games in four days – with several players now returning from injury, at least he now has a squad to rotate.
Keeping a compact shape will be key to staying in the game – we are not going to able to outplay them. Then it will need either quick counter-attacks (as happened in the most recent 2015 success) or set pieces to provide any hope of inflicting our own damage – and set pieces really haven’t been a strong point this season. Interesting that the two headed goals against Fulham took the total up to just three for the season to date. A side equipped to deny the opposition space and that can break quickly would seem the only way of engineering an upset.
I think we will probably see Ryan Fredericks in for a flagging Pablo Zabaleta and Marko Arnautovic replacing the handy Javier Hernandez; but any other change will depend on the perceived fitness of either Samir Nasri and Manuel Lanzini. Perhaps one of them will start in place of one of Mark Noble or Robert Snodgrass.
Making his third West Ham appearance of the season is referee Stuart Atwell from Warwickshire. He was previously in charge of defeats to Bournemouth in the league and Tottenham in the league cup. It will also be his third Etihad gig of the season following City wins over both Fulham and Bournemouth.
Not surprisingly the pundits (like the bookmakers) have this down as a banker home win. Merson goes for 3-0 and Lawro 3-1. With Wolves suffering a surprise defeat to Huddersfield last night and Watford facing a trip to Anfield it is a shame that the Hammers do not have a more amenable fixture in the shuffle towards seventh place. At least, that target is likely to be no more remote following this current round of matches. The longer that West Ham can keep City at bay then the greater the chance of an upset – even if it remains a small one. An early City goal could open the floodgates against an often fragile West Ham resolve – even though in their earlier defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester City had lost after taking an early lead. My best case scenario is a 0-0 draw.