Old Kid In Town: Understudy Roberto Holds The Key To Seeing Off The Eagles And Furthering West Ham’s Ambitions

A buoyant West Ham can finish the day in the top three of the Premier League. But can stand-in keeper Roberto prove his doubters wrong and prevent panic in the Hammer’s defence?

The two elder statesmen of football management will ride their mobility scooters into the London Stadium later today as West Ham contest their first capital derby of the season.  Boasting a combined experience close to 75 years, Manuel Pellegrini and Roy Hodgson might have thought that, by this stage in their lives, they would be more likely sitting on a park bench (like bookends) reminiscing about dubbin, lace up footballs, nailed-on studs and £100 per week footballers.  Instead they will be taking charge once again of another game in the cauldron (© Sky Sports) that is Premier League football.

Crystal Palace have been rather profligate with their managers over the years with Hodgson being the 60th to fill the position (Pellegrini is West Ham’s 17th manager, by comparison).  A scan through the Selhurst Park managerial hall of shame shows many of the usual merry-go-round suspects (Bruce, Francis, Dowie, Warnock (twice), Pulis, Pardew, Allardyce) that suggests an unimaginative approach to recruitment which might represent the limits of their ambition.  The one missing name that prevents a Dinosaur Bingo full-house is that of Mark Hughes – but give it time.

It is fair to say that Hodgson has brought a degree of stability to Palace that makes them unlikely relegation candidates – even if that stability is rather dull and dependable in nature.  The cunning team strategy is to field ten plodders plus Zaha – just like when Le Tissier played for Southampton.  The stats may show that Zaha has little end product but he really doesn’t have much to work with – apart from getting into the box and going quickly to ground.  No wonder he wanted away.  If Palace were a car it would be a VW Beetle or Citroen 2CV – functional and able to chug along forever but lacking style or glamour.

West Ham by comparison are a wheeler-dealer’s custom car project. Although the old policy of collecting old parts from the breaker’s yard has been mostly abandoned, it is still some way from peak performance.  The flared wheel arches, racing seats and rear spoilers may all have been installed; but the important work of upgrading the engine and transmission has been largely overlooked.

Not that it hasn’t been an encouraging start to the season but there are nagging doubts that (given the games that we have played so far) there should be a few more points on the board if a realistic assault on the top six is to be mounted.  I guess clean sheets and unbeaten runs build confidence, but they don’t always result in the bring optimum points haul.  One win and two defeats from the drawn games against Brighton, Villa and Bournemouth would have earned exactly the same number of points.  Would a more adventurous approach have gathered a few extra?  It is no surprise that, as things stand, we are regarded in the media as a team that has enjoyed a better than expected start to the season, rather than being the team most likely to break into the top six (that being Leicester.)

Perhaps I am expecting too much. If you had asked me a few years back, then I would have been more than happy with our current situation.  We are playing a more attractive style of football and have recruited some fine talent; but I can’t help wondering whether there shouldn’t be another enterprising gear in there somewhere.

By far, the biggest talking point of the week for Hammers fans has been in digesting the news of the long term injury sustained by Lukasz Fabianski.  I knew that all those unnecessary pass-backs to the keeper would come to no good – a case of repetitive strain injury arising from all those punts upfield have taken their toll on the keeper’s hip.  Outside of the management team, there has been little confidence shown in the abilities of his replacement, Roberto.  Having confidence in the keeper is a key element of any defensive unit and if jitters are apparent they can quickly become contagious.  If too much attention is being paid to protect the keeper it will be detrimental to the entire team performance.

Roberto’s career has been as a “have gloves, will travel” itinerant. He has played 272 league games in four countries over 15 years.  He can be no Fabianski but he still needs our support.  Maybe a R-O-B-Erto chant to the old Ottowan D-I-S-C-O tune that was once use for Di Canio during his stay at Sheffield Wednesday would do the trick?

Apart from the keeper, the only other likely change should be a recall to the starting eleven for Manuel Lanzini, at the expense of Pablo Fornals.  It would be a good time for Lanzini, Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko to start creating some decent chances for the hard working Sebastien Haller.  The Palace defence will be well organised and well drilled and our creative players need to be at their sharpest to find a way through.

Yarmolenko is riding the crest of a wave at the moment and long may it continue.  He is a hard player to pin down in any particular category.  Not really a winger but playing wide on his weaker side should make him predictable but he has the sweetest left foot and rarely wastes a ball.  Perhaps he is a conundrum that also baffles opponents.

Palace will be without set-piece specialist Milivojevic through suspension while defender Sakho is out injured.  Veteran defender Cahill has relegated former West Ham pinup favourite James Tomkins to bench duty but there could be a start for wily ex-Hammer, Cheikhou Kouyate.

Making the long trip south from Northumberland with his whistle is one-time refereeing wonderkid, Michael Oliver.  Agreeing with all his decisions at VAR Central will be Paul Tierney.  I read that since Palace’s return to the Premier League they have been awarded more penalties than any side in the division (I couldn’t see how many of those had been ‘earned’ through Zaha’s tumbling act.)  During that same period, West Ham have conceded more penalties than any other team in the same league.  Make what you will of that particular omen.

Media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas both forecast a home win, by 2-0 and 3-1 respectively.  Barring defensive howlers or calamities, it is difficult to see where the visitors will find goals from, if Jordan Ayew is the best they have to offer.  The game will hinge on the Hammer’s ability to break down Palace’s stubborn resistance.  It is one of those situations where if one goes in there could be several more.  A good day to discover a killer instinct.  A 3-0 win would do for me and depending on what happens at Anfield, it could see West Ham sitting pretty in third place by the end of the day.

The Eagles visit the London Stadium. Will West Ham or Palace be Glad All Over on Saturday evening?

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.