The big day has arrived. It’s time to fish out the lucky underwear, try to retrace those superstitious morning routines and then head out for your preferred match-day refreshment. Peak pre-season optimism will continue up until the team sheets are revealed, at which point pre-match tension (PMT) will kick-in with the realisation of just how strong today’s opponents are.
I was trying to remember back as a young supporter, looking forward to a new season following Ron Greenwood’s West Ham, whether I ever believed the Hammers were in with a chance of winning the league. Even then my expectations probably weren’t that high, but now a title challenge is well beyond the realms of possibility. So what am I looking for – why bother?
For me a successful season is one where we look committed and are competing in every game – both league and cup. We would be trading blows with the monied elite and making sure they know they have been in a game. We should look to entertain but not be intimidated by the more physical opponents, whose priority to is contain and spoil. We should be in with a shout (or be part of the conversation in modern footballing parlance) of European qualification right until the final weekend and be prepared to embark on barnstorming cup runs. Not a lot to ask is it?
The pundits are always talking up the Premier League as an excitingly competitive pursuit but really it is most predictable, at least for the present moment. There may be a big six when it comes to counting the money and overseas following but only two teams have any real hope of lifting the trophy. Manchester City will resume their long running weekend leapfrogging contest with Liverpool before finally recording their third title on the trot in the closing weeks. Then there will be a gap to Tottenham in third place followed by a bigger gap to Arsenal in fourth. After that the placings might get a little more interesting this time around, with clubs including ourselves, Everton, Wolves and Leicester fancying their chances of muscling in ahead of potentially distressed Chelsea and Manchester United sides. Not that there is much hope of ever breaking into the top six longer term (not without significant outside investment) but it would nevertheless be amazing as a one-off event.
I was relatively pleased with the transfer window recruitment although only time will tell how well the new players adapt to life in the Premier League. It was good to see signings in the right age profile rather than more of the traditional practice of boosting retirement funds for fading superstars. Like many supporters I would have liked to have seen more but appreciate there are constraints. It is strange how so many fans saw reinforcements in defensive midfield and at full-back as close season priorities and yet these have been left untouched by Manuel Pellegrini and his team. A clear indication of where his football philosophy lies. We have no option but to trust the manager but pre-season did nothing to allay the fears concerning wide open spaces left for opponents to exploit in midfield and on the flanks.
Today will be Manchester City’s 5th visit to the London Stadium with a record that reads played 4, won 4, goals scored 17, and goals conceded 1. Guardiola has created a formidable team that pose a threat all across the pitch. They weren’t so bad when Pellegrini was at the helm but are now fitter, more compact and more together. They are also highly professional and even their most gifted of their players is prepared to do his bit defensively even if this involves a niggly, cynical foul to thwart an opposition breakaway. A slight tug of the shirt or minor body check in the opposition half rarely receives more than a finger wagging censure from referees.
The Sky Blues were relatively restrained (for them) in the transfer window spending a mere £130m for Rodri (a Fernandinho replacement) and Cancelo (another expensive full-back). It is without doubt the strongest squad in the league although today they will be without Sane and Mendy.
For the Hammers, the pre-season friendlies have offered a good indication of how they might line-up with the attack minded quartet of Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals and Sebastien Haller looking to cause City problems. The anticipation of some excellent movement, passing and interplay between the forward players is quite mouthwatering.
Declan Rice will adopt his usual defensive midfield role leaving Jack Wilshere (in the absence of Mark Noble) as the remaining midfield option. If he stays fit, Wilshere can be a magnificent asset this season but playing in a more withdrawn position may not be conducive for his best work to be on view.
At the back, I am hoping to see the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership return to its optimum level of cohesion following an uncertain pre-season. The full-back pairing is most likely to be Ryan Fredericks and Aaron Cresswell. I doubt that we will see so much of Pablo Zabaleta’s weary legs this season and although I believed Pellegrini preferred Arthur Masuaku on the left, he didn’t feature a great deal in pre-season. Incidentally, it was Cresswell who netted the Hammers only London Stadium goal against City and he will probably skipper the side today.
It goes without saying that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with Lukas Fabianski being passed fit to start in goal.
Is this a team that can cause an upset? I don’t think we can rely on complacency or rustiness from the opposition and so it must be down to a cunning and perfectly executed game plan. Strangely, the weakness in central midfield might not be as important in a game like this where we will be forced to defend deep with most players behind the ball for long periods anyway. We do now have players able to cause problems on the break provided that focus, shape and discipline can be maintained throughout. It is not a game where we will boss the possession stats!
Mike Dean is today’s referee and there is a huge likelihood that we will get to witness a controversial VAR incident or two at first hand. But will it be to rule out Aguero’s last minute equaliser for offside or to confirm that Diop’s boot lace was sufficient to send Sterling tumbling in the box? In theory, I welcome VAR but am worried about its execution. I can envisage multiple incidents every game with players surrounding referees and making TV shaped gestures with their hands.
Lawro returns to the BBC with a 2-1 away win for Manchester City while punditry duties at Sky seem to have transferred to Charlie Nicholas who opts for a 3-0 away win. At least both predicted outcomes would keep us off the bottom of the table after Norwich’s defeat at Liverpool last night. Personally, I am going for broke, keeping everything crossed and predicting a 2-1 West Ham home win. COYI!