When you reach this stage of the season with less than a dozen games to go, then as a West Ham fan you start paying even closer attention to other games that are being played, especially those of the teams that are around us in the league table. On many occasions in past seasons the purpose has been to see if they are picking up points in the desperate scramble to avoid relegation. But this time around it is very different. We are interested from the point of view of finishing as high as possible in the table, perhaps qualifying for a place in Europe next season, and possibly even (whisper it quietly) a place in the Champions League.
Normally that would mean finishing in the top four, and most pundits are writing us off in that respect, believing that our wonderful run so far will come to an end before we reach the season’s finish. They may well be right but I hope not. How good would it be to prove them wrong? With a limited squad we have performed way beyond all expectations of even our most ardent supporters, and there is no reason why we cannot go all the way if all the cards fall in our favour, and results elsewhere help too.
Of course this season finishing in the top four might not even be enough to qualify for the Champions League. If there are two English teams that win either the Champions League or the Europa League, and they finish outside the top four in the Premier League then they would qualify for next season’s elite European competition alongside the teams that finish in the top three. There is a maximum of five places for any one country in the Champions League, and winning the previous season’s European tournaments takes precedence over league positions.
And this scenario could still happen. In the Europa League, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United have all reached the last 16, and if one of them should go on to win it and finish outside the Premier League top 4 they would qualify for next season’s Champions League. For this reason West Ham fans will be rooting for Olympiakos, Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan in the second legs on Thursday this week. But both Arsenal and Tottenham hold two goal leads from the first leg and are favourites to progress.
Similarly in the Champions League, Liverpool have already reached the last eight, and both Chelsea and Manchester City are well placed to join them, holding leads before their forthcoming home legs this week. I think we can disregard Manchester City in the Premier League as they will win it comfortably but we must hope that they, or one of the other foreign teams such as Bayern, PSG win the Champions League to prevent Liverpool and Chelsea from qualifying by the back door if they finish outside the domestic top four.
Of course none of this will matter if we don’t do the job ourselves in the league so we must continue to aim for as high a finish as possible, hopefully in the top three. Now this may well be beyond us but it is nice to think that it is still a possibility, and even still in our own hands with just eleven games to go. And the league results have been kind to us so far this weekend. Leeds holding Chelsea to a draw was a good result for us, and Burnley’s unexpected win at Everton was an even better one. This means that we go into today’s fixture (probably) still in fifth place just three points adrift of Chelsea with two games in hand, and two points ahead of Everton with a game in hand over them too. We could do with Sheffield United surprising Leicester today, but I can’t realistically see that happening, plus it would be good if Arsenal beat Tottenham, something I always hope for, and Wolves beat Liverpool on Monday night. Draws in those games wouldn’t be the worst results for us either.
Apparently Manchester United are weakened by injuries for today’s game, and we must also hope that they want to hold themselves back a little for their return leg against AC Milan this week. We will be without Lingard of course, but I expect to see Benrahma in the number 10 role behind Antonio with Fornals and Bowen providing the other two attacking midfield roles. The back four pick themselves at the moment; Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell, as do Rice and Soucek in midfield. The only possible variation to this may mean a slightly more defensive line-up with Johnson replacing Bowen, who hasn’t looked at his best recently, in a 4-3-2-1 formation. Noble could even come into the equation but I’d prefer to see him held back and brought on in the last five minutes to help preserve our 2-0 lead! So my predictions are West Ham to win 2-0, Leicester to draw 2-2 with Sheffield United, Arsenal to beat Tottenham 2-1, and then Wolves to beat Liverpool 1-0 on Monday. I’m not hoping for too much am I? What are the chances?