Except when the spectre of relegation is looming large, the final home game of the season will often have a party atmosphere about it – like the last day of school before breaking up for the long summer holidays. The quality and urgency of the football, however, can take on a decidedly pre-season friendly feel – and that’s even before allowing for West Ham’s infamous inconsistency.
Last weekend’s superb win at Tottenham was an historic one. When a record is claimed by being faster, higher or further there is always potential for it to be broken. When you record a first, though, it will stand forever! Overall it was a very good performance but one that was competent in the first half and excellent in the second. In the opening exchanges, those trademark gaps between defence and midfield and midfield and attack were all too apparent. Opposition forwards were given too much space to operate in fromt of the defence and Marko Arnautovic was an isolated figure up front. Then after the break, everything changed. Arnautovic finally came back to life, Michail Antonio started to cause panic in the Tottenham defence and the likes of Mark Noble, Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku put in their best performances for some time. It was also great to see the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership reunited and along with Lucas Fabianski they were excellent throughout, and largely responsible for keeping the scores level at the break.
Tomorrow’s opponents, Southampton, secured their Premier League safety last weekend as their point against Bournemouth and other results did just enough. Following the appointment of Ralph Hasenhuttl, to organise the shambles bequeathed by Mark Hughes, it was always likely they would have enough quality to stay up. How they react to the pressure being lifted also adds to the uncertainty of this weekend’s spectacle. It is a chance for West Ham to complete a rare league double and maybe fifty points is still achievable if sufficient motivation is evidenced. As welcome as the win at Tottenham was, only being pumped up for the occasional game is not really acceptable. Finishing in the bottom half, if that is what eventually happens, would remain a disappointing outcome.
Once again, the weekend’s Premier League fixtures are strewn over an extended four day period with the West Ham game one of only two Saturday 3pm starts. It will be ironic, therefore, if all the important issues are resolved in advance of the hoped for climactic Matchday 38 finale. Cardiff will almost certainly confirm their relegation on Saturday and when Liverpool fail to beat Newcastle on Saturday evening it will effectively hand the title to Manchester City. The media will only have the thrilling fourth place finish to fuel their final day frenzy.
Despite reports that both Manuel Lanzini and Samir Nasri are available for this week’s game it would be a major surprise if either appeared in the starting eleven. I cannot see any changes being made from the team that started at Tottenham.
This week’s referee is Stuart Atwell from Warwickshire making his fourth West Ham appearance of the season. The previous three encounters all ended in defeat for the Hammers – at home to Bournemouth and Tottenham (League Cup) and away at Manchester City.
Both of the featured pundits are predicting a Hammer’s home win; Paul Merson a thrilling 3-2 knockabout and Lawro a predictable 2-0 stroll. West Ham have generally struggled against the type of high energy football that Hasenhuttl likes to play and will need to carry over that second half intensity from their last game. Southampton, though, have a few injury problems at the back and the manager may choose to rotate his squad now that safety has been achieved. A high scoring topsy-turvy end-of-season affair is not unthinkable and I will put my money on an exuberant 4-2 home win.
Finally, I have never watched a ladies football match either live or on TV but I guess, by default, I am a West Ham fan for the women’s game as well. Accordingly, I would like to wish the West Ham Ladies the very best of luck in their Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley against Manchester City tomorrow afternoon. Obviously hoping for a Hammer’s win but most importantly that it is an exciting and memorable day for all concerned. A remarkable achievement already to have reached the competition final.