West Ham Need A Shot Of Enthusiasm Or The Season Will Simply Fade And Die

To maintain a semblance of interest in the remainder of the season, West Ham must find a far better attitude in today’s contractual obligation encounter with doomed bottom dwellers, Huddersfield.

With it being FA Cup weekend, there is only the remnants of a Premier League afternoon with just three uninspiring fixtures scheduled including the visit of doomed Huddersfield Town to the London Stadium.  On paper this should be the most cast iron of banker home wins; yet the combined lack of motivation and consistency that has plagued Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham revolution leaves a niggling doubt in the dark recesses of the mind.

Following their spirited survival last season, Huddersfield have spent most of this one on life support to the point where it might have been kinder to all concerned if they had been able to forfeit the remainder of their games.  When they parted company with promotion winning manager, David Wagner, early in the new year only the appointment of Tom Cruise or The Expendable could have given them any hope of escape.  Still, for a team looking for chink of light at the end of a very long tunnel (if only to raise their spirits) then an encounter with the Hammers will often oblige.

Infected with the eternal, irrational, straw clutching optimism of the football supporter, I had been clinging to the hope that West Ham could somehow find sufficient momentum to launch a viable challenge for a seventh place finish.  For me, however, that flicker of hope was finally extinguished in the dreadful performance at Cardiff last week – one of many tame away defeats to lower placed opposition that we have had to endure in recent months.  As managers often do in these circumstances, Pellegrini has vowed to improve the awayday experience; but in truth his squad looks well short of the qualities needed to overcome resolute opponents.  It is admirable that the manager is determined to play with a particular style and formation but sadly, it seems he doesn’t have the players to put his plans into practice in an effective and consistent manner.  In particular, we easily lose shape and compactness when put under pressure – leaving the team exposed down the flanks and isolated in attack.

It would be a major surprise if we did not see several changes from the side that performed so feebly in Wales.  In defence, there should be a welcome return to the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership (at the expense of Angelo Ogbonna) plus a possible recall for Pablo Zabaleta in place of Ryan Fredericks.  By default, Aaron Cresswell will continue at left back.

The centre of midfield continues to be an obvious  weakness despite the season long heroic performances of Declan Rice.  Based on last week’s showing maybe Samir Nasri will get the nod over Manuel Lanzini while skipper Mark Noble will probably keep his place to make up the numbers.  There is not a lot to choose between Noble and Pedro Obiang especially considering there is precious little leadership demonstrated on the pitch right now – at least not in the face of adversity!

In the more advanced positions, surely we will, at long last, see the return of Marko Arnautovic, in place of Javier Hernandez; supported by Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio on the flanks.  Antonio has been very unfortunate to find himself on the bench after recent performances and is capable of posing more of a threat to Huddersfield than Robert Snodgrass.  While Anderson has not been at his best in recent weeks the team was still very much poorer after he was substituted at half time last week.

Just so that he doesn’t feel left out, soon to be HOTY, Lukasz Fabianski, will continue with his undisputed run between the goalposts.

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Perhaps there is now an opportunity to give at least some game time to a number of the young players who have been training with the first team squad.  I would particularly be keen to get a look at Nathan Holland who, from my admittedly limited viewing, has looked a more complete player, at current stage of development, than Grady Diangana.  Another opportunity to see Ben Johnson would also be interesting.

As well as experiencing a lengthy run of poor form on the pitch, Huddersfield are also now suffering badly in the injury room.  A long list of injuries includes Durm, Depoitre, Diakhaby, Duhaney, Hogg  and Mbenza.  Their main problem during two seasons in the Premier League has been the failure to score goals and a toothless terrier is not really any threat.  Despite this, they do have several useful players; notably Billing and Pritchard.

Anyone looking for additional entertainment this afternoon will be able to watch overweight West Yorkshire referee Jonathan Moss in his struggle to keep up with play.  Didn’t there used to be a fitness test for refs?  Moss was last seen at the London Stadium for the win against Arsenal.

As they did last week, the BBC and Sky pundits are banking on a comfortable Hammer’s win – Lawro by 2 – 0 and Charlie Nicholas, standing in for the absent Paul Merson, by 3-0.  Despite my concerns that the remainder of the season could become two months of going through the motions, I do expect a routine victory today.  Home form at the London Stadium has been very strong (one defeat in the last nine games) and it would be remarkable if the Hammers let this one slip.  Just to be perverse we are sure to concede a goal but still run out as 4-1 winners.

West Ham entertain Championship-bound Huddersfield

Can we still maintain a challenge to finish seventh this season?

In the football season, when you arrive at the middle of March you hope that the team that you support has something to play for. It is not as interesting when you are just going through the motions looking ahead to next season, without any real aims, such as a place in Europe, a visit to Wembley for the FA Cup Final, or even in a poor season, a fight against relegation. A place in Europe is still a possibility, albeit a receding one, following our non-show in Wales last week. Although we sit in ninth place, seventh place is still achievable with a good run-in in the final eight games, as we are just five points behind Wolves, and four behind Watford, our two main rivals for the coveted seventh place, also known as “the best of the rest”, or Premier League Division 2 champions, once the “elite six” are disregarded. But how much easier would seventh position and a place in Europe have been if we had picked up three points at Cardiff last week. But once again we showed that we are the most consistently inconsistent team.

Of course if we had taken the FA Cup more seriously, and not lost to a pub team destined for relegation to an even lower division than the lowly one they currently reside in, then the interest of us fans would be still heightened as we looked forward to the latter stages of the competition, and possibly quarter-final ties this weekend. But once again it was not to be. I believe that we have been eliminated from the two domestic cup competitions by teams from a lower division more than any other team in my 60 years of following West Ham.

But despite all this, I have already renewed my season ticket for next season, and look forward to my visit to the London Stadium today. Surely we must overcome relegation-bound Huddersfield, who sit at the foot of the Premier League with a meagre 14 points, which makes them 16 points from safety with eight games to go.

But if you want some reasons why we might not win, then here are 7 to be getting on with.  West Ham fans will understand what I mean.

We have never lost to Huddersfield in a Premier League game.

  1. We haven’t lost a league game to Huddersfield since the weekend of my very first date with my wife, which was over 47 years ago!
  2. We are unbeaten at home in 2019.
  3. If we win it would be the first time that we have won three consecutive league games at the London Stadium.
  4. Huddersfield have lost 7 of their last 8 games.
  5. Huddersfield have only scored 8 goals on their travels – which is less than any other team in the Premier League.
  6. Huddersfield have failed to score in 5 successive away games.

Ironically our overall record against Huddersfield in history is a negative won, but that is mainly due to the fact that they were once a force in the game. This is before most people who are alive today can remember. In their golden period back in the 1920s and 1930s they won the league title in three successive years, and were runners-up on three other occasions, also winning the FA Cup at that time, and were finalists in four other years. But latterly they have been in the doldrums relatively speaking, and after relegation in 1972 they spent the next 45 years in the three tiers outside the top flight until returning in 2017. After just about surviving last season they are now on their way back down.

Despite our inconsistency, even the bookmakers make us very strong odds-on favourites to win the game at odds of about 8/15. Given our visitors inability to score away from home then you would have to believe that a win to nil would be a good bet, and the odds will depend on how many it might be.

For example, 1-0 is favourite at 9/2, 2-0 is 11/2, 3-0 is 10/1, 4-0 is 22/1, 5-0 is 70/1, with 6-0 200/1. But remember this is West Ham we are talking about. Huddersfield might score and might beat us. I’d like to think that won’t happen though. Let’s hope that we can turn up, turn it on, and our attacking players in particular can provide us with some goals to cheer. I’m hoping for 3-0 or 4-0. Let’s see.

Wolves and Watford are still involved in the FA Cup this weekend, and both have away games to play in the league next. We have this game at home to Huddersfield and our next game is at home to Everton. That five point gap can be dramatically closed, or possibly eradicated completely by the end of March. If we can win these two games then we can definitely challenge for seventh place. Three points today is a must to enable this to happen.

West Ham To End Their Awayday Blues And Say Bye Bye To The Bluebirds

You were lots of fun to know, But I have to let you go, Bye bye bluebird! Can West Ham boost their European ambitions with three welcome away points?

Many readers will undoubtedly remember the seminal 1999 Faroe Islands road trip movie “Bye Bye Bluebird” – or perhaps even the Boney M track of the same name from 1979.   Twenty years further on we may be about to witness yet another farewell to the Bluebirds as West Ham travel west to face a struggling Cardiff City side.

The Hammers sit comfortably in ninth place with a realistic shot at competing for seventh spot if only they could be bothered; while Cardiff are frantically attempting to keep heads above water as they splash around in the bottom three – two points from safety but weighed down by a vastly inferior goal difference.  With limited resources at their disposal a lowly position in the Premier League table is not a surprise and, if at the start of the season, you had told manager Colin Wanker that he would still have his job come March, he would have been highly delighted.   He can now look forward to a nice payoff during the summer.

Still, the unlikable Wanker is long enough in the tooth to recognise that West Ham have been susceptible to in-your-face opponents on a number of occasions this season – as evidenced by meek surrender to high octane opponents such as Burnley, Brighton and Bournemouth.  It will no surprise to see a similar game plan from Cardiff this afternoon and Manuel Pellegrini’s side must avoid their typical lumbering and lethargic start to the match.

The Hammers have been knocked off their perch as the runaway leaders of the injury league and now sit in a much healthier fifth place.  Apart from the long term absentees (Jack Wilshere, Andriy Yarmolenko, Winston Reid and Carlos Sanchez) the only injury doubt is Aaron Cresswell.  That means a possible return for ‘The General’ Fabian Balbuena although this is likely to be on the bench given the fine recent form of Angelo Ogbonna.  Pellegrini has mentioned several times how many games Issa Diop has been called upon to play this season but I don’t see an Ogbonna/ Balbuena axis working very effectively if the manager is tempted to give the young Frenchman a rest.

Elsewhere on the pitch the selection dilemmas are likely to revolve around choices between Michail Antonio or Robert Snodgrass and Marko Arnautovic or Javier Hernandez – although Pellegrini is no stranger to pulling a surprise rabbit out of the hat when you least expect it.  My preference would be for Arnautovic and Antonio, both of whom should be able to pose plenty of problems for the second worst defence in the league.

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To make Cardiff’s survival task more difficult they will now be without star defender Sol Bamba for the remainder of the season.  The final relegation place looks likely to be a tussle between the Bluebirds, Southampton, Brighton and Burnley but the Welsh side look to be at the greatest risk for a quick return to the second tier.

This week and next week see two rare Saturday at 3 pm kick-offs for West Ham, before having to wait until April 20 for the next one.   I have, for some time, had a sneaking feeling that eventually Champion’s League games will be switched to the weekends to provide more friendly kick-off times for the vast worldwide TV audience.  I sincerely hope this never happens but can see the lucrative UEFA money making vehicle taking increasing and incremental precedence over the domestic game – notice how top six managers increasingly demand their clubs get fixture scheduling priority in preparation for CL games.

Today’s referee is Graham Scott from Oxforshire who, as well as officiating at West Ham’s defeat at Arsenal back in August, was also in charge of the corresponding Cardiff fixture at the London Stadium.

The BBC’s Lawro and Sky’s Merson are unanimous in predicting a 2-0 West Ham win – which is just a little worrying.  The last thing needed, for a team that has failed to record an away victory this year and has lost five of the last six away in all competitions, is a sense of complacency.  Provided the Hammers successfully weather the early Cardiff storm then the extra quality in the team can see them run out as comfortable winners -maybe by as many as three clear goals.  If they fail to start the game on the front foot, however, it could be deja-vu Burnley all over again.

West Ham visit Cardiff

West Ham were flying in December, but 2019 has been mixed. Can we take off in the run-in to claim seventh place?

December 2018 was a record month for the Hammers. Five wins in seven games including three at the start of the month against the Magpies, Bluebirds and Eagles. Those are the three flying creatures who we have done well against this season. Our record has not been as impressive however against the Seagulls or Hornets, neither of whom we have beaten. Today’s game gives us the opportunity to extend our run of consecutive wins against the team from the Welsh capital to eight. In fact our overall record against them is outstanding. Since December 1965 we have faced them on 22 occasions, winning 15, drawing 5, and losing just twice. Only one of those defeats came in our last 11 visits to play them in Cardiff.

2019 league results have a symmetrical feel to them with three wins, three draws and three defeats. Excellent performances to beat Arsenal and draw with Liverpool have been counter-balanced by defeats (and poor performances) at Bournemouth and Wolves. When I dusted down my crystal ball before a football had been kicked this season, I looked ahead to what I could see would be another predictable season in the top flight of English football. And as it turns out I haven’t been far wrong. My top six were Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal, and with just nine games remaining those half dozen clubs are 13 points clear of the sides chasing them. Not the hardest prediction to make I know, but nevertheless the group at the top show no signs of giving up their positions in the “elite six” in the Premier League. I may even have those six in the correct order by the season’s end, but if not, it won’t be far off.

I then guessed that the four teams who would be chasing them without any real hope of joining the group would be Wolves, Everton, Leicester and ourselves, and that too has turned out much as I expected as they occupy 7th, 9th, 10th and 11th.

Watford are the team that have surprised me, as they are currently 8th and level on points with Wolves for that coveted seventh place. In my predictions last August I felt that they would be one of the half dozen clubs in biggest danger of falling down into the Championship, the others being Bournemouth, Brighton, Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff. Not quite so accurate there, although the last three on that list are the clubs currently occupying the relegation places.

When the season began I am sure that Neil Warnock, the Cardiff manager, would have been more than delighted to still be in with a chance of avoiding the drop in March. At present they are just two points away from Southampton who are 17th ( realistically 3 points away from the bottom three when their goal difference is taken into account), and will believe that they can still be a Premier League side next season, although it will be a difficult task.

Five of their seven wins this season have come at home to Fulham, Brighton, Wolves, Southampton and Bournemouth, with two victories on their travels at Leicester and Southampton. Their double over Southampton, who are their nearest rivals for the drop as it currently stands, has been vital in keeping them in with a chance. They have drawn four games this season against Newcastle, Palace, and Huddersfield (twice) without a goal being scored in any of them. So based on that statistic alone, if a goal is scored in today’s game, then one of the two sides will come out on top. Cardiff don’t do score draws.

CARWHU1As more of our first team squad return to full fitness, our manager is given a greater choice in who he selects for both the starting eleven and the match day squad of 18. I was very impressed with Balbuena this season (he appeared on the front cover of the home game against Cardiff in December) and felt that his partnership with Diop was the way forward. But, despite not being Ogbonna’s biggest fan, due to what I perceive to be a tendency to occasionally “switch off” at vital times, I have enjoyed his recent stand-out performances, and he will be hard to displace in the starting eleven. Fredericks is beginning to find his feet in the side, and together with Cresswell (if fit) will surely occupy the full back berths. Surely not even the most ardent Adrian fans (and there are many) can argue against the choice of Fabianski as the number one custodian; he has exceeded most expectations with many faultless performances.

Rice and Noble will surely occupy the two “defensive” midfield slots, and of course they were our two goalscorers last week in the victory over Newcastle. That leaves four offensive positions to be filled. Surely Anderson and Lanzini will occupy two of them leaving the remaining places to be taken by Antonio (or perhaps Snodgrass), and then Hernandez (or Arnautavic). My preference would be for Antonio and Arnautavic, although Snodgrass has done little wrong. Hernandez has improved his play outside the box as the season has progressed, but I still remain unconvinced with his “fox in the box” reputation, and don’t believe he converts as many chances as I thought he would when we signed him. Of course Arnautavic remains a bit of an enigma (and always will be I suspect), but at his best he is a formidable striker who adds quite a goalscoring threat to our team.

Unusually for West Ham playing away from home we are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game at around 6/5, with the odds around 16/1 for us to repeat the scoreline in the reverse fixture on that cold early December Tuesday evening when we ran out 3-1 winners with two goals from Perez and one from Antonio. If we are serious in believing that we are a “big team” and that we can be the seventh best team in the Premier League, than these are the games that we must win just as the “big teams” do.

Three of the games that we have lost this season have been to Wolves (twice) and to Watford, our two main challengers for the seventh spot. Had we won those games then we would now be sitting on 48 points, 8 clear of Watford (whose tally would be 40, and 11 clear of Wolves who would be on 37). We have also lost twice to Bournemouth. Six more points and we could have been sitting pretty on 54 points only just outside of the top six. These are the games that we must do better in next season if we are going to push on and get nearer to those clubs at the top. But in addition to the matches against our closest rivals we must beat the teams who are struggling in the bottom half as well. A win in the Welsh capital today would help enormously in our attempt to reach seventh place.

The game after this one is at home to Huddersfield. Wolves have two away fixtures against Chelsea and Burnley coming up, whilst Watford face both Manchester clubs in their next two games. If results go our way we could be in seventh place with seven games of the season to go. That would be quite an achievement considering the lead we gave those two clubs after four games of the season, especially Watford who we trailed by 12 points at that time. But whatever the results elsewhere we must keep on winning, and I’m looking for a repeat of the 3-1 win that we achieved in December.

Hammering Out A Toon: West Ham Set Their Sights On Europe

A pivotal match that will determine if there is to be a realistic effort to contest seventh place or whether it will be a long, slow season fade. Which West Ham will turn up?

If the average Liverpool Street commuter went down as easily as Bernardo Silva did, after brushing against a bystander, then the station concourse would resemble a medieval battlefield at every rush hour.  The referee, however, chose to apply the ‘he was entitled to go down’ interpretation and the resultant penalty was enough for the Hammers to leave Manchester once again with their pockets empty.  There was an interesting contrast with an earlier penalty area incident where Manuel Lanzini (one of the select band of players to have a ‘deceiving the referee’ rap on his charge sheet) elected to stay on his feet – and thus no foul was committed in the eyes of the law!

Defeat left West Ham with just nine points from the eight league games played so far in 2019.  A return that will need to be significantly improved if a realistic challenge is to be made for seventh place, the best of the rest title and the opportunity to lose to Romanian part-timers in next season’s Europa Cup.

Today’s opponents, Newcastle United, have continued to pursue their win a few/ lose a lot cycle of recent seasons, but having hauled themselves up to 13th place and 31 points (just five behind the Hammers) they no longer look to be serious relegation contenders.  The Geordies have picked up thirteen points in this calendar year and come into the game looking for a third win on the bounce – following home victories over Huddersfield and Burnley.  Their away form, however, is less impressive.

Just when the West Ham injury situation was starting to look more positive a new outbreak struck prior to the midweek game.  A cluster of full-back ailments resulting in a Premier League debut for Ben Johnson; who performed admirably given the formidable circumstances.  It is unlikely that we will see him again today with both Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell reported to be available to start; this apparently despite Cresswell having broken toe – normally three months on the sidelines for a Hammer.  Marko Arnautovic also missed the Manchester City game with a virus and a late fitness test will determine whether his course of industrial strength Lemsip will allow him to start.  In his absence it should be a return for Javier Hernandez unless Manuel Pellegrini wants to give Andy Carroll another chance at failing to score against his old club.

Goalscoring has again been something of a disappointment this season with none of the nine teams above us in the table having scored fewer.  The goals have been shared between twelve players but with no player yet to reach double figures.  My enthusiastic prediction in the early part of the season that Arnautovic would beat Paolo Di Canio’s 16 goal Premier League record now seems well off the mark.

In midfield there should be a return for Mark Noble (at the expense of Pedro Obiang) and I expect Samir Nasri to keep his place ahead of Robert Snodgrass.  Lanzini will again settle for a place on the bench as he continues his way back to full fitness.

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For Newcastle, Rondon is always a handful and would be a top striker if only he scored more goals. Ritchie always seems to play well against West Ham and it will be interesting to see Longstaff who some (mainly Geordies) mention in the same breath as our own Declan Rice.  The one iron that we don’t want to see doing well today is Almiron.  With Benitez offering a little more in the way of adventure these days our defenders need to maintain their sometimes wayward concentration if we are to avoid a repeat of last season’s 2-3 defeat.

Chris Kavanagh from Lancashire is today’s referee and makes his third Hammer’s appearance of the campaign – a defeat at home to Wolves and draws at Huddersfield and home to Brighton.

If the Premier League table were based on the predictions of Mark Lawrenson, West Ham would be in 17th place with 25 points while Newcastle would be sitting pretty in 10th on 40 points.  Sticking to these broken guns he is opting for a 2-0 away win today.  Over at Sky, Paul Merson has settled for a 1-1 stalemate.   Slow starts continue to plague the Hammers and they will need to hit the ground running to contain a lively Newcastle side that has looked better organised lately.  West Ham home form has been much improved of late and I will bank on the players being motivated sufficiently to earn a second consecutive 3-1 win at the London Stadium.