In the end it was a thoroughly professional display that eased West Ham past Doncaster Rovers and into the fifth round of the FA Cup. The pre-match banana-skin phobias came to nothing and the introduction of a sprinkling of fringe players failed to deflect the Hammers from their current purposeful stride.
Since last winning the cup in 1980, West Ham have, more often than not, been eliminated by this stage of the competition. That the cup dream is still alive is a bonus, even if a next round encounter with Manchester United does appear a little daunting from here. This year’s fifth round boasts an unusually strong field and with few unexpected early casualties it belies the not taking it seriously mantra. The draw will almost certainly contain twelve Premier League sides (and eight of the current top ten) assuming Tottenham get the better of Wycombe Wanderers this evening. Plenty to do then before making plans for a long-awaited return to Wembley.
It is back to league action tomorrow with a trip to the suburbs to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Games against Palace have taken on a recurring theme of frustration and disappointment just lately. A Groundhog Day sensation whereby victory would have elevated the Hammers to some lofty league position, only for it all to go horribly wrong at the last moment. It happened to Pellegrini’s team in October 2109 and again, just over a month ago, for David Moyes. Tomorrow, a win would take West Ham (at least on a temporary basis) into the Champion’s League places, and with a realistic prospect of being above Liverpool when we play them next Sunday. Can it happen or will Palace once again pee on our chips?
Whenever I have seen of Palace this season they have failed to impress. They are spoken about as possessing more adventure these days, but it has hardly registered in my eyes, apart from a blitzkrieg of a game against a woeful West Brom. Their performance in the drawn game at the London Stadium was one of their better efforts, but since then they have won just one (against Sheffield United) in seven games – a run that includes shipping 7, 3 and 4 goals to Liverpool, Villa and Manchester City, respectively. Although Eze has the makings of a good player, they remain very much a one-man team – take away Zaha and they would be in the thick of a relegation battle. Sadly, it seems that despite missing the Manchester City defeat, Zaha is back available for the game.
Barring any unknown injuries or Covid self-isolations, the West Ham team pretty much picks itself at the moment. The only uncertainty is Pablo Fornals or Manuel Lanzini. I would opt for Fornals but I have a feeling Moyes may think otherwise – and his opinion carries more weight than mine.
I have been increasingly impressed with Said Benrahma. He has been getting progressively better (and contributing more) as his pitch time has increased. His trickery adds a different dimension to the West Ham midfield, and he works hard at the same time. Would, of course, love to see more end product (is he trying too hard to score?) but his willingness to look for the ball and run with it brings back fond memories of Berkovic and Benayoun.
Striker speculation continues to run amok in the media where stories of £30 m+ bids being tabled sit by side with claims of poverty from the boardroom. I sense the chances of anyone new coming in are getting smaller by the day. That there are those at the club who believe we can somehow muddle through with a combination of Andriy Yarmolenko, Mipo Odubeko and Oladapo Afolayan as cover for Michail Antonio. Loan signings might be a possibility if they can be agreed, but West Ham are already at their maximum for domestic loans.
As much as I don’t rate Palace, this won’t be an easy game. Few games are in the Premier League. Some were unimpressed with the Hammer’s performance against Burnley, but see what they went on to do at Anfield. The majority of teams are well organised and will work hard – that has been Palace’s game plan for all of their seasons under Hodgson. I do think, though, that we currently have the right mix of confidence, skill, variety and power to hurt most opponents.
If this game were being played exactly one week later, it would fall on the actual Groundhog Day. This time, though, I feel confident the curse of Crystal Palace will be lifted. West Ham to win 2-0 – and we might even get that elusive first penalty. COYI!
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