I’ve just been re-reading the article I wrote prior to the away game at Manchester City originally scheduled for the Sunday before last. Most of what I wrote still stands, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Climatically, not only have we endured Storm Ciara, the reason for the postponement of the original game, but this was followed a week later by Storm Denis wreaking havoc across much of the country with strong winds and heavy rain.
But in a football sense, perhaps the biggest storm has been the one that has descended upon the blue half of Manchester, where the club have been found guilty and been given quite a kicking by Uefa, who showed no love on Valentines Day by dishing out their stiffest sanctions ever, penalties imposed for breaches of Financial Fair Play and licensing rules. I guess they’ve been dancing in the streets of Madrid and Barcelona especially, where there is a belief that City have got just what they deserved, and many feel the same about Paris St Germain too. I doubt that it is just the Spanish either, and suspect there are wry smiles in Italy and Germany also.
City have had massive success domestically in the last couple of seasons and were generally felt to be the best team in the country, until Liverpool won the Champions League last season and have literally run away with the Premier League this time around, holding an almost unassailable lead. Many will feel that there are parallels with the game of Rugby Union, where the Premiership, which has now been in existence for 32 years, slightly longer than its football counterpart, is dominated by money. I wrote an article recently that demonstrated the link between revenue and success in football (West Ham were the exception!), and I believe that Rugby Union has similar ills. For me, money is ruining both games, with teams chasing success using win-at-all-costs strategies. In Rugby Union, Saracens, the leading, and most successful team in recent times, were found guilty of breaching salary cap regulations, and were given a points deduction so severe that it guaranteed relegation at the end of this season.
City’s punishment is massive too, although it is of a European not domestic nature. The fine of around £25 million will not harm them; perhaps the cruellest sanction from their viewpoint is the two year ban from European competition? What will this do to enable them to retain their renowned manager, and their leading players? And more than that will they be able to attract the top players going forward? I suspect not.
The big difference between the Saracens and Manchester City situations is very clear though. Whilst Saracens have accepted their punishment and are not contesting the fine and points deduction which means relegation, it would appear that this will not be true for City. From what I’ve read they have signalled their intent to make a legal challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and of course have limitless funds to appeal and challenge the decision. Effectively I reckon they could tie up the decision for years to come with appeals and legal challenges.Of course it is not their first offence. They received a massive fine a few years ago for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations, and haven’t there been issues around breach of transfer rules, and a ban on signing Academy players in recent times too?
I don’t know the rights and wrongs of all this, and really don’t understand the intricacies of the Financial Fair Play regulations. What I do know is that, for me, the financial imbalance in the revenues of the leading football clubs when compared to the rest, does nothing for the game of football, and leads to a predictability that makes Premier League football boring. What effect will the last week have on this fixture, City’s first game since the bombshell was dropped? Will it demoralise the players or lead to an increased resolve?
From a West Ham viewpoint the players have been taking their mid-winter break, and in fact we haven’t played a game now for two and a half weeks. The players resumed training last Saturday and should certainly feel fresh. New signings on the pitch and coaching staff have hopefully given the team a lift, although rumblings of discontent from the fans in respect of the owners continue to grow.
In normal circumstances, to play Manchester City away from home is as tough a fixture as you can get. They beat us 5-0 at the London Stadium on the season’s opening day, but whilst they haven’t been quite as formidable this season as last, they are still easily the second best team in the country. They have failed to score for two games in a row, so must be relishing the thought that West Ham are the next team up. I wonder how long it is since City failed to score for three games in a row?
Hopefully the majority of our squad are now fit, and when you add the signings of Soucek who made a promising debut, and Bowen who arrives with many praising his potential, I am confident that we can score move forward from here. My main worry is that we face the two toughest games in the calendar next, and hope that we don’t lose confidence, or too much ground, on the teams around us.
I read on social media that some of our fans hated Tottenham’s last minute winner against Villa. Whilst not being keen on our neighbours from North London, surely we need to look at the bigger picture and be pleased with the result, which adds to the problems of Villa, one of our main rivals in the relegation fight?
If you look at the games that we all have to play, then all teams around us have difficult fixtures in the run-in, although ours come sooner rather than later. We really need to stay in touch with the others over the course of the next few games, and then when we get to the final half dozen or so games, it will be in our own hands, with (on paper) some fixtures that are most definitely winnable.
Who will be in our line-up against City? Of course we’ll have Fabianski in goal. But will he choose the experienced but fading Zabaleta for a final hurrah against his old club, or the faster, but perhaps more error-prone Fredericks at right back? Balbuena’s wretched form surely ensures starts for Diop and Ogbonna, whilst Cresswell is most definitely a safer option at left back than Masuaku.
In midfield I assume he will have three “defensive-minded” players for this game, which I reckon will be Rice, Noble and Soucek. Surely he can’t be tempted to use Sanchez, can he? This leaves three more places to be filled for more attacking players and a choice from Haller, Antonio, Bowen, Fornals, Lanzini, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Masuaku, Snodgrass and Ajeti. Have I forgotten anyone? I don’t think that any of the youngsters like Silva or Ngakia will be considered for this game.
Of course we all have our own opinions, but I would expect to see Antonio, Bowen and Anderson as the three. That would surely be the fastest trio, adding more pace to the side? That would be my choice. I’m sure others (including the manager) may have differing opinions. For more midfield “energy” then perhaps Snodgrass could play instead of Noble, or if we intend to be even more defensive minded then he could play in addition, and only have two really “offensive” players. I hope not. We have a lot of good attacking players in the squad, and if used correctly, I’m sure we can score goals. The problem will be keeping them out!