It was, I believe, Brendan Rodgers, who first talked about ‘being in the conversation’ referring to his side’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win the Premier League in the 2013/14 season. The phrase has since been picked up by a host of commentators and pundits who might say (laughably, I know) that Tottenham are ‘in the conversation’ as far as this year’s title is concerned or else may debate who ‘is in the conversation’ for this season’s player of the year award – entries, of course, limited to those appearing for a top six club.
It made me wonder whether West Ham were likely to appear in any conversation any time soon. Perhaps, and with some justification, which is the most injury prone team in the league or, maybe, which is the most inconsistent? Ideally, it would be who is the conversation to finish best of the rest and end up snatching a Europa Cup spot. A great deal more consistency would be required to make that a reality!
There were so many plaudits following the Monday night performance against Liverpool that it is difficult to remember that West Ham didn’t actually win the game. Perhaps they would have gone on to do so had it not been for Simon The-One-Eyed Linesman. Klopp came in for a lot of criticism for his post-match rant about the officials but he is not the first manager to be found spouting bollocks in the heat of the moment. To his credit he still took time to congratulate both sets of players as they left the field at the end of the game.
Exactly how the same team that performed so feebly against Wimbledon and Wolves managed to raise their game to such an extent against Liverpool continues to defy logic. It would seem to suggest that there are or have been some serious attitude issues within the squad. Any clues as to whether these have now been put behind them will be on show when they take the field against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park this afternoon. Since winning at Southampton, just after Christmas, it is now four straight away defeats (including cup) on the bounce, serving to balance out the recent improvement in results at the London Stadium.
Even though, as one of the top twenty richest clubs in the world, we may like to see ourselves as knocking on the top six door along with other moneyed pretenders such as Everton and Newcastle, the reality in recent season has been one of tussles with the likes of Palace and Southampton in the lower to middle reaches of the league. In the five seasons since Palace returned to the Premier League, the Eagles have finished above the Hammers on three occasions. With only two places, but six points, separating the two teams, it would be a major disappointment if that scenario happened again.
The main selection dilemmas for Manuel Pellegrini are whether Marko Arnautovic returns following several weeks out with the sulks and whether Ryan Fredericks keeps his starting berth or is replaced by Pablo Zabaleta. Everyone had a decent game on Monday but the manager still needs to pick his strongest team – the ancient concept of not changing a (nearly) winning team is a dated one in the modern game. Despite Javier Herndandez putting in one of his better non-scoring displays, Arnautovic has far more to offer in the lone striker role. If there was one thing clear from the Liverpool game it was that the team are much more compact and with better shape when there are more bodies in midfield – with current personnel two strikers just doesn’t work. Fredericks would be unlucky to lose his place but I expect Zabaleta to get the nod.
As for Palace, it seems that Zaha has been given a suspended suspension so that he can play today despite an extra match ban following his dismissal for making fun of the referee. Perhaps in the circumstances he should be electronically tagged during the game both to monitor his whereabouts and his outrageous diving – a sort of Simulation Assistant Referee based on the ‘Tilt’ functionality of old style pinball machines.
The danger for West Ham looks to be down the Palace right flank where the marauding Wan-Bissaka (surely in the conversation for young player of the year alongside Declan Rice) and one of the league’s top chance creator, Andros Townsend, will need to be carefully marshalled. With Pellegrini’s preference for the high line and narrow defending it is a cause for concern that it may allow even Benteke or Batshuayi to find opportunities to score.
The match-day referee is Craig Pawson from South Yorkshire. Pawson was in charge of that most recent West Ham away win at Southampton. He started the season with a flurry of red cards but has since calmed down a little.
Of the pundits, Lawro is convinced by a 1-1 draw while Merson has become frustrated by the Hammer’s inconsistency and foresees a 1-0 home win. I always believe that these encounters will have goals in them and fancy at least four or more this afternoon. For the Hammers to triumph, it will need the same intensity and application that we saw on Monday. We can’t always rely on Felipe Anderson and Declan Rice to drag us over the line and it will require others such Angelo Ogbonna, Issa Diop and Aaron Creswell to stay on high alert and play at the top of their game. Support to Cresswell down our left will also be vital. Assuming all of that can be delivered I am going for a 3-2 to the Hammers repeat of the December score.