A season punctuated by international breaks and blank cup weekends (one unavoidable and one unforced) comes back to life this weekend as the league finally moves towards its thrilling climax (© Sky Sports).
There comes a time in most seasons when you start to wish it was all over. File it under disappointing and hope that it will all be better next time after a profitable summer pruning the deadwood and strengthening the squad . I guess there has been definite improvement since the employment of Manuel Pellegrini – more entertaining football, at least – but the fact remains that, with seven games to go, there is precious little to play for apart from a remote possibility of Europa League qualification. The feeling is like being at stop nine of a twelve pub crawl, when the sensible option would be to give up, go home and get some sleep, but the voice inside convinces you to carry on to the World’s End.
No doubt when the season does eventually end there will be a football sized gap at the weekend which can only be replaced by the irritation of endless transfer window speculation. Despite the knowledge that the majority of stories are most likely made up by some bloke in his bedroom, it is impossible to resist clicking that latest teasing headline to yet another spurious rumour. We will then react with enthusiasm, disbelief or outrage depending on the prevailing view of the board’s ambitions. For the record, I have taken an indicative vote and decided to reject the Shelvey or Mitrovic rumours as undesirable outcomes.
Moving on to today’s game and we welcome fellow serial underachievers, Everton, to the London Stadium. This fascination of this Cinderella derby, featuring two clubs from big footballing cities who have long lived in the shadows of more illustrious neighbours, is which of their inconsistent incarnations will be on show . Both appear to have a shared set of shortcomings whereby, lacking the resources to compete with the truly big boys, they assume there is some form of reflected glory that renders it unnecessary to adopt the graft, commitment, determination and teamwork demonstrated by less glamorous clubs.
Everton have long been one of the Hammers principle bogey teams, both home and away, although a win today would make it three in a row for West Ham and earn a rare league double, the first since 1972/3. The two teams are also in a tug-of-war battle for the honour of most all-time Premier League defeats; a tussle in which Everton have now regained the initiative to lead by 364 to 361.
Many people say that you should not change a winning team but I’m not sure whether that still applies when you have played badly and won. Given how West Ham had the look of a pub team for much of the match against Huddersfield, until it was rescued by a rousing finish and a fortunate narrow victory, it would be no surprise if the manager decided to shake things up a bit. Once again it was a poor attitude and lack of application that was mostly to blame. Unfortunately, it appears that the player who made the greatest contribution to turning around that game, Samir Nasri, will not be available this weekend.
A recall for Fabian Balbuena following his recovery from injury must now be long overdue. The team, and Issa Diop in particular, have missed his organisational and leadership skills. In the absence of any other options, Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell will continue as full backs.
It is difficult to imagine that any of the current strikers will still be at the club when the 2019/20 season kicks-off in August, and so it is anyone’s guess which name will appear on the team-sheet today. Who will be Pellegrini’s choice between the angry Austrian, who remains the most able to play a lone striker role, and the mercurial Mexican who is likely to be full of confidence following his two goal haul against the Terriers? As ever, playing two up front sounds appealing in theory but would see the flimsy West Ham midfield badly exposed, even allowing for the presence of new England international, Declan Rice. The media have already agreed that the transfer of Rice to a top six club in the summer is a ‘done deal’ but we might be lucky to get one more season out of him leading up to EURO 2020.
Late season games often see the odd young player thrown into the mix but I do not see any radical team selection decisions being made until the chance of seventh has completely receded. Personally, I feel that a youngster or two on the bench this time of year is always worth it just in case circumstances allow them to get a run out.
Everton have experienced as inconsistent a season as West Ham and currently sit two places and two points below the Hammers. In theory, they are another of the teams that could secure seventh place. The greatest threats are Richarlison and Sigurdsson both of whom have twelve league goals to their credit this season – compared to no Hammer yet having reached double figures. Keep those two quiet and the chances of victory are greatly increased. Sadly, the hapless Walcott is unlikely to feature and his aimless running up and down the wing will not be part of the entertainment. In the distant past, Walcott saved some of his best work for games against West Ham, but those days are long gone. Arsenal have always known when the time was right to jettison their spent forces, something that West Ham have learned to their cost on several occasions over the years.
It will be a first London Stadium visit of the season this evening for referee Paul Tierney of Lancashire. A prolific issuer of yellow cards (83 from 26 games), Tierney’s only other Hammer’s engagement this term was the away victory over Newcastle in December.
Neither Lawro nor Paul Merson were inclined think too long and hard about this fixture and both have gone for the draw, 1-1 and 2-2 respectively. Failure to win today could be a final dent in the battered dreams of seventh place whereas victory would keep the flame flickering for a little while longer. By the time kick-off comes around the Matchweek 32 fate of Wolves and Watford will already have been decided, as will the potential for ending the day any further up the table. Heart is going to overrule head this week with the prediction of a controlled 2-0 home win.