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.
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.