Christmas is over, West Ham are not in the bottom three, even have a game in hand, and the Manuel Pellegrini doomsday clock is stuck permanently at one minute to midnight. Time to feast on the left over turkey and wonder whether Santa has delivered any new ideas to the London Stadium.
Boxing Day football is as much part of the traditional festive landscape as snowmen, robin redbreast, eggnog and maids-a-milking. My all-time fantasy Christmas list would have taking the 723 to the Boleyn for an early morning kick-off as one of its many highlights. Sadly, it seems that a home fixture on Boxing Day is now a thing of the past and that we must be content with the short trip across town to the land of allotments and inflatable clapper sticks.
On the face of it the omens are favourable for today’s game. Our boys have had a few extra days to rest or work on ‘stuff’ in training while hosts, Crystal Palace, have an injury list that would overwhelm even the best funded of A&E department. The only fly in this ointment being that such favourable circumstances have rarely worked to our advantage in the past.
The cancelled fixture against Liverpool has presented an opportunity for the Hammers to chalk up rare successive back-to-back Premier League victories. Apart from the promising run early in the season and a purple patch in November/ December last year, victories have arrived in staccato fashion separated by missed opportunities. The compact nature of mid-table means that a few wins can change the apparent complexion of the season significantly, allowing a decision on the manager’s immediate future to be parked until the summer. As I fail to see any good place where Pellegrini can take the club, it leaves me conflicted.
Aside from the enforced change at right back due to Ryan Fredericks suspension, Pellegrini’s major selection headache will be who plays in goal. Even he must realise that either Lukasz Fabianski or David Martin on one leg has to be a better option than the hapless Roberto. If reports are to be believed it will be Martin who gets the nod today with Fabianski making his return at the weekend. Other than that, I would imagine that the team will lineup as at Southampton, with Felipe Anderson restored to the bench following his mystery illness. Certainly, if Antonio and Haller reproduce last week’s from they can unsettle the usually well-organised Palace defence.
The major (only) Palace threat will again be provided by Zaha and the hope is that there will be a plan to double up on him in times of emergency – otherwise he will lead the ageing legs of Pablo Zabaleta a merry dance. The Eagles will probably be fielding two ex-Hammers in their starting eleven – James Tomkins and Cheikhou Kouyate. Tomkins is a decent but erratic defender who is always a danger as an attacking threat from set pieces; while Kouyate has become more dependable in the limited role expected of him by Roy Hodgson.
Thoughts at this time of year also turn to the impending transfer window – which will ‘burst open’ on 1 January. Already, there are conflicting reports on how busy the Hammers will be; ranging from their being no cash available at all to a lengthy list of apparent targets that the Daves have sent to the North Pole. Whatever money there is, we can but hope that it is spent wisely. Dependable (youngish) replacements for the troublesome central midfield and full-back positions would be at top of my list but how that will lay out amid uncertainties with manager and director of football is unclear. Recruits should be fit, athletic, technically competent and, importantly, with the right attitude. They do not need to be exotic, flamboyantly named, Hispanics or ex-Champion’s League winners. It has reached a point where I am wary of any player who is reported as keen to join West Ham. Typically it is for the wrong reasons – munificent wages, the bright lights of London, or the easy life. To paraphrase Groucho Marx “I refuse to sign any player who is eager to become a (squad) member.”
I received an email from West Ham in the week announcing a 60% off clearance sale but was surprised to see that Carlos Sanchez and Roberto were not yet listed as available. The squad is far too thin to allow many departures but cannot see a downside in letting those two go. If numbers get that desperate, then give some of the young players a go. How could it be worse?
The matchday referee is Andre Marriner from West Midlands making his second West Ham appearance of the month (he was in charge of the defeat at Wolves). His VAR chum is Andrew ‘Andy’ Madley from West Yorkshire. Any chance of a seasonal penalty decision going our way today?
Looking at the TV pundits, we see Lawro backing West Ham for a 2-1 win and Charlie Nicholas unable to separate two inconsistent sides with a 1-1 draw. It really should be an opportunity for the Hammers to add to their points tally. After all, with the season almost halfway done, the 20 point threshold has still to be reached. Thankfully, as illustrated by some of the games that I watched last weekend there are a plenty of poor teams in the Premier League right now – no matter what the marketing boys say about there being no easy games. I would prefer not to be (and we shouldn’t be) part of the Premier League leftovers but fear that is how it will stay for the foreseeable future. Limping into the second half of the season with a bewildered manager who is living on past glories rather than present realities. I do believe, however, that we can win today.
The week was overshadowed by the sad news of the death of Martin Peters, one of the all-time great West Ham United players. Peters was a huge favourite of mine when I first started following West Ham and is easily part of my all-time West Ham XI. It was a massive disappointment when he left prematurely in 1970 as the first big-name Hammer’s departure of my West Ham supporting career. He was part of a West Ham team that played in the first ever top flight clash between West Ham and Crystal Palace, in November 1969 – a 2-1 home win in front of 31,515 spectators. The team that day, including at least five West Ham legends, was: Ferguson, Bonds, Lampard, Howe, Stephenson, Moore, Redknapp, Peters, Brooking, Hurst (1), Best (1)