Oh joy of joys, once again we kick-off at what a traditional football supporter would call a non-traditional time. 5.30pm on a Saturday evening. I didn’t want to do anything on Saturday night anyway! This will be our eighth league game of the season and our fourth at home at the London Stadium. All four of our home games have started at different times. We’ve had 12.30 on a Saturday, followed by 3.00 on a Saturday, 2.00 pm on a Sunday, and now 5.30 on Saturday! That’s the price we have to pay for vast injections of money into the Premier League from Sky and BT. But as a West Ham fan of long standing I guess we don’t have too much to complain about this season; well not as far as the league games are concerned. If, after our 5-0 beating by Manchester City on the opening day of the season, we had been offered the opportunity to be facing Palace in Matchday 8, having not lost any further league games, with three wins and three draws in the next six games, and fifth place in the Premier League table, most of us would have comfortably settled for that.
And we are only denied fourth place in the table by virtue of Arsenal having scored more goals than us, as we both have an identical goal difference of +1. For us, that’s quite a turnaround after being -5 after the first game. Personally I find it refreshing to see two of the “reserved” places in the “elite six” being occupied by ourselves and Leicester, taking the places of Chelsea and Manchester United. And I’m not unhappy to see us one place above those North London neighbours with the new stadium. I do think West Ham fans need to be a touch cautious though when crowing about Tottenham on social media sites. There was the mickey taking re their exit from the Carabao Cup at the hands of Colchester which came before our poor performance and defeat at Oxford. And then after their loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League I’ve seen plenty of pictures of “Seven Up” bottles. Perhaps when we qualify to participate in the Champions League we can afford to crow more, but I guess we need to make hay while the sun shines in respect of taunting Spurs. I’m all for it really but hope it doesn’t come back to bite us again! Arsenal supporters must be enjoying it too, especially as one of their former players bagged four of the goals that sank their neighbours.
Seven games down, and only three of them at home, and our league position after each matchday has read 20, 16, 14, 7, 8, 5, 5, showing excellent progression. The performances have not always been as good as we would like, and we can definitely improve further so the outlook is good. On paper at least the next few matches are eminently winnable. Three of the next four are at home, with an away game at out of form (but still dangerous I suspect) Everton. Crystal Palace, Sheffield United and Newcastle are all teams we would expect to beat (especially at home) if we want to be considered a big team, and teams we would need to defeat if we want to continue to pursue a place in the top six.
As far as many of our fans are concerned, one big blot on our ambition is in the injury to Fabianski which is likely to keep him out for quite a while. Fans have taken to social media questioning why we let Adrian go, but it seems he wanted to go, and there’s no point in continuing with those moans. Many are also questioning whether the two back-up keepers we signed in the summer are of sufficient quality to play in the Premier League. Roberto seems to be the preferred choice to take over from Fabianski rather than David Martin, but his performances so far have not exactly earned rave reviews and many are concerned that this may be a significant stumbling block in our quest to continue our fine start to the season. He certainly moved around a lot in Spain, with visits to Portugal and Greece too, and there is some historical controversy in respect of the ownership of the economic rights of the player himself. Where have I come across that before? He has often been a second choice keeper for the teams he has played for, but having said that he has amassed over 300 senior appearances, and played for the Spanish national side at all age levels except for the full side. The West Ham crowd seem to have taken against him, but I just hope he makes some good saves early on to get the fans behind him. I’ve seen West Ham fans have issues with our goalkeeper before (Allen McKnight is the main example, but there have been others at times e.g. Ferguson, Day) and watched as the keeper visibly lost confidence and his performance suffered as a result. I just hope it doesn’t happen this time. If it all goes pear-shaped in the next few games as far as the goalkeeping position is concerned then Mario Husillos’ judgement will be called into question and perhaps the chairman will want to regain control over transfers and the Director of Football position at the club.
Palace themselves have made a decent start to the campaign with three wins, two draws and two defeats in their seven games, meaning that they are just a point below us among four clubs on 11 points. Like us they have beaten Norwich and Manchester United. In the main their games have been low scoring affairs, the exception being a 4-0 defeat away from home at the hands of Tottenham. They also lost 1-0 at Sheffield United, so the highlight of their travels was the 2-1 victory at Old Trafford. Of their six league goals scored, Van Aarholt, Townsend, Milivojevic (penalty as usual), and ‘Own Goal’ have scored one apiece and an Ayew of the Jordan variety has scored twice. AT least Milivojevic won’t be able to score a penalty this week – he is suspended.
I can recall a game early in 2016 when West Ham beat Aston Villa 2-0 (in the season they were relegated) and Jordan Ayew was sent off for inexplicably elbowing Aaron Cresswell for no apparent reason as they were waiting for a free kick to be taken. He ended up as Villa’s leading scorer that season albeit with only seven goals. I expect Cresswell (our in-form goalscorer!) is looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with him. Incredible really, two goals in two games, when he took more than 100 games for his last two.
Historically we have a positive record in head to head games against today’s visitors, and in the last four seasons we have a record against them of the kind that I don’t like, in that it is there to be broken. In the eight fixtures since the beginning of the 2015-16 season we have won four and drawn four. In last season’s game at the London Stadium just ten months ago, Palace led at half time, but we came back strongly in the second half and won the game 3-2. It was the very first time in a West Ham v Palace Premier League fixture that the team scoring the first goal went on to lose the match. We began that game less than a year ago with Hernandez and Perez up front; fortunately neither are still here. Incredibly West Ham and Palace are two of the three teams (Manchester City are the other team) that have kept three clean sheets this season.
With the bookmakers we are evens favourites to win. I expect us to be too strong for our opponents in attack. Zaha is a dangerous player but (and I hope I don’t regret writing this) I think he lacks an end product; he ought to score far more goals than he does. I’m not sure if we can retain our clean sheet record but I reckon we’ll win by two clear goals, either 2-0 or 3-1. Enjoy the game.