In a season notable for its fixture congestion, it is something of a luxury to go a whole nine days without a game. In bygone days it would have been enough for Fat Sam to whisk the squad off for a warm weather jolly to Dubai, but the more pragmatic David Moyes will have wanted to put the break to better use. Recharging the batteries and retuning the engine for what could well be an interesting climax to an unusual campaign.
Since West Ham were squeezed out by Manchester City, despite a spirited and admirable display that was worthy of a point, the majority of Premier League clubs have played three times, resulting in the Hammers slipping from 4th to 7th in the standings. For a while it looked like other results were being kind to us, but recent wins for Manchester United, Leicester, Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham have seen them putting points on the board at our expense. As an anxious supporter, I sense this may have posed a degree of added pressure to tonight’s performance, but hopefully the dressing room has an in-built immunity to such transient concerns.
With one or two games in hand over those above us (apart from Everton) the competition for a top six place remains open and up for grabs. There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns before the fat lady sings come the end of May. There are also an intriguing number of head-to-head games still to come between the interested parties – starting with Chelsea vs Everton, scheduled to end in a 1-0 home win immediately before our game kicks-off tonight. More gushing acclaim for Tuchel, the latest football media darling.
Where will it lead to, who knows where? My best guess is that a further twenty-one points would be the minimum requirement for West Ham to be in with a shout of a top four finish, it would certainly secure top six. Seven wins or six wins and three draws should do the trick. Not easy but, equally, not impossible.
How well other teams perform and avoiding injuries will also be contributing factors to the Hammer’s fate. We should all switch allegiances for European matches and hope that Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Liverpool continue to stay involved and distracted for as long as possible.
Despite Leicester’s win at the weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me if they fell away given their spate of injuries and I’m still to be fully convinced by Everton. That the Hammers remain ‘part of the conversation’ (as they say these days) is nothing short of remarkable and more than I could have hoped for back in September. Who might have believed that games away at Manchester United and home to Chelsea, Leicester and Everton would be pivotal in determining European qualification rather than to avoiding relegation.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First the Hammers have to negotiate the challenge from Premier League mavericks, Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa has become something of a marmite manager among supporters – tactical genius or eccentric oddball? Whatever your opinion he has steered his side to a comfortable mid-table position in their first season back at the top, and provided plenty of entertainment along the way. They are as unpredictable as the Hammer’s sides I remember watching in the 1960s. A far cry from Revie’s Leeds of the same era. It will be interesting to see how they develop next season.
West Ham will be looking for only their second double of the season in tonight’s game. In the reverse fixture at Elland Road, Leeds attacking play was largely impotent, despite taking an early lead, and they are likely to provide a far stiffer test this time around.
A huge difference compared with more recent seasons is the Hammer’s impressive home form, which is currently third best in the league. A win tonight would put them back into second place, above Tottenham, but still a long way behind Manchester City. A shame that it has had to be achieved in an empty stadium. Having supporters back inside for the final game on May 23 to secure a Champion’s League spot is a beguiling dream to hang on to.
The major injury concern over the past week has been the fitness of Lukasz Fabianski. His welfare is my concern. My fingers are doubly crossed for a safe return between the posts for today’s game, particularly with Darren Randolph also nursing an injury. Although Randolph is a decent enough shot stopper, he has always looked suspect in the air – evidenced, in my opinion, by his failure to claim De Bruyne’s cross that led to Manchester City’s opener the previous weekend.
Moyes has made a habit of springing the odd curve ball in recent team selections and formations. I think it will be a return to a back four tonigh with Jarrod Bowen returning in place of Ben Johnson – but perhaps the manager has other plans.
It may be a tired pundit’s cliché but there is truth in the axiom that there are no easy games in the Premier League. Not in the sense that you can ever take it anything for granted. Leeds do not provide the compact, massed defence that has so often derailed West Ham in the past but there all action possession based style will present a very different challenge. There will be opportunity for the pace of Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard to exploit on the break but the whole team must do their bit in matching the visitor’s energy. It is reassuring that we have come to expect a positive and determined team spirit throughout the side, as well as performances above and beyond the call of duty from the likes of Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal and Craig Dawson.
For a side without a prolific goal-scorer, West Ham have a reasonable return in converting chances – but they do have an inferior goal difference to most of those above us. While it’s great to see the goals shared around, the absence of a 15 – 20 goals a year striker is an obvious vulnerability. The beauty of a natural scorer is in turning a draw into a victory and in turning the screw when you are on top, converting a 2-1 score-line into 4-1. Maybe next season, eh?
Win or draw and West Ham will be back in the top six at the end of the day. A win will see us back in fifth and should Everton manage a draw at Chelsea then it will be a good night’s work all round, with everything set up nicely for the following weekend. West Ham to win 3-1.