Several years ago, I had an abscess on the back of my leg. The doctor decided he needed cut it out out but that due to its location behind the knee it would not be possible to administer a local anaesthetic. Just before scalpel cut into my skin he warned me: “this might hurt a bit.” He wasn’t wrong. To make matters worse, the wound had to kept open until all signs of the infection had gone. This involved opening up the flaps of skin and cleaning it out every few days. That too hurt a bit. In the end, though, it was a happy ending, and a complete recovery was made.
The story seemed a perfect metaphor for West Ham’s current predicament. Having slipped into the bottom three, they now face consecutive away games against the two best teams in the land. There is going to be pain – and things will get much worse before any hope of getting better. As to whether this story too will have a happy ending depends as much on others as it does on the Hammer’s own efforts. Will there be three worse sides in a season where 40 points is looking increasingly like the minimum requirement for safety.
My expectations for the next two games are set very low. West Ham are sure to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League all-time losses table (377 to Everton’s 375) Anything better than zero points but with the goal difference deteriorating by less than five goals would be a bonus. It is damage limitation pure and simple.
These two fixtures are separated by the Premier League’s first ever mid-season break; as if the season isn’t already interrupted enough by international breaks. For a team that is not in Europe, gets eliminated in the early rounds of the cup and runs less than all the others, West Ham really don’t need a rest. Best just to get it over with.
I always try to find some crumbs of optimism but reality invariably gets in the way. Any team suffering a relative dip in form, as City are right now, tend to find a visit from the Hammers the prefect antidote. Guardiola will have given up any hope of the title but he will want to finish as strongly as possible. His primary target will be the Champion’s League but with a week’s break there is no imperative to rest players for this one. At least they will be without Sterling today.
There has been a clamour among supporters for Declan Rice to switch into defence for this game, particularly in light of last weekend’s Keystone Cops defending. But following on from David Moyes comments that Rice is arguably the best holding midfield player in the league, I am not sure this will happen. In fact, with City being a team that like to pass through the opposition and gradually wear them down I am not convinced this would be the best policy. If West Ham are to get anything out of the game (even if it is merely a sense of pride in having made a game of it) they need to be strong and compact throughout and break forward quickly. If City have a weakness it is to rapid counter attacks. A central midfield partnership of Rice and Tomas Soucek would be my choice for keeping a good shape and not conceding lots of unnecessary free-kicks just outside the penalty area.
It will be interesting to get a first look at Jarrod Bowen who I believe will partner Michail Antonio as the most advanced of the Hammers. I can see no reason why Sebastien Haller would merit a starting berth in a game like this. As mentioned last week I find Moyes stance with Pablo Fornals has been puzzling – just when he was finding form he has been relegated to the sidelines. I expect Robert Snodgrass will again be preferred to the Spaniard today.
Graham Scott from Oxfordshire is the matchday referee. Scott is one of the league’s leading red card issuers so far this season and was previously in charge of the Hammer’s 4-0 win against Bournemouth. Doing his very best to create some much needed talking points from the VAR eye in the sky will be Craig Pawson.
Top media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are united in predicting an emphatic Hammer’s defeat, at 3-0 and 4-0 respectively. If there is anything united among West Ham fans it is desire for new owners. We have regularly highlighted the obvious lack of direction or strategy at the club on this blog, and we are by no means alone in that regard. But now, several mainstream media journalists have jumped on the bandwagon to ridicule the two Daves. It is a sad state of affairs and the reaction by the board to the comments made on Sky Sports were a massive own goal. Still I don’t see any chance of the them selling up until after the 2023 repayment deadline in the stadium agreement. Equally, anyone hoping that relegation would spur them into selling is sadly misguided in my view. It would only prolong the agony.
As for today’s game I can’t help thinking that losing by only two goals would represent a good result. We can live in hope that the unexpected might happen, though – at least for the first twenty minutes or so.