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.
As 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.