West Ham’s Top Four Odyssey: Nobody told me there’d be days like these!

The clouds have lifted, the sky is blue and West Ham’s road to a spectacular top four finish is looking clear – unless, that is, they get stuck against the Toffees

Successive defeats and an injury ravaged squad had seen menacing dark clouds rolling in on West Ham’s top four aspirations.  But just as it gets darkest before dawn, those negative thoughts were blown away by a superb, barnstorming victory at Turf Moor on Monday night.

The surprise return of a turbo-charged Michail Antonio, the awakening of Said Benrahma and the re-birth of Manuel Lanzini united to give notice that while many in the media may “have thought it was all over”, it isn’t now! The fat lady can put her feet up for a few more weeks, yet.

More good news was to come last night when this season’s West Ham nemesis, Newcastle United, gratefully returned part of the favour by beating Leicester, 4-2. Both Leicester and Brendan Rodgers have previous with letting good positions slip and their one-time grip on third place is now looking decidedly precarious. Picking up points against Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs is no certainty.

Games towards the latter stages of the season are notoriously difficult to call, as an increasing number of teams are left with little left to play for. The champions, runner-up and relegation places are to all intents and purposes sealed leaving only Champion’s League qualification and the crumbs of the Europa League up for grabs.

The race for those remaining two top four places is realistically down to Leicester, Chelsea, West Ham and Liverpool. Tottenham are sure to be in denial until the last mouthful of lasagne confirms otherwise but it is beyond them to outpoint three of the above. Not to say that the north Londoners couldn’t finish above West Ham, should the Hammers fall away badly, but best not to think about that.

On paper, West Ham and Liverpool have the easiest of the run-ins. Chelsea are difficult to beat but would do exceptionally well not to drop points from games against Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester and Villa. The re-scheduled Manchester United – Liverpool game could well prove a pivotal moment in a congested programme for the Red Devils. It’s a shame that second place already looks nailed on for them. Hopefully, local rivalry will not allow them to take it easy.

All of this speculative daydreaming would become inconsequential, of course, if the Hammers are unable to keep their end up. As much as we might fancy the run-in, no game is going to be a straightforward. As the tension mounts there will be psychological obstacles as well as the opposition to overcome. With less to lose in terms of expectation, and being considered as rank outsiders, it may hopefully take some of the pressure off. It will still be a huge test of character. Although the ideal would be to win each of the four remaining games, maybe we can get away with one draw.

The first of those four games is arguably the toughest, when Everton visit the London Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Toffees started the season at a blistering pace but have been largely flat and inconsistent ever since. They look like a collection of potentially fine players without any cohesion or spirit. As with Pellegrini’s Hammers, Everton have spent large on players who are big on reputation, but light on attitude or application. The times that I have watched them recently, they have been predictable and short on ideas. Despite this, they are still in with a shout of the Europa League and cannot be dismissed.

As ever, David Moyes has been coy about the state of the injury situation. Not aware of any new knocks being picked up, the key questions pertain to the return to action, or otherwise, of Declan Rice and Angelo Ogbonna. It would be a massive boost to have them both available. The success of Lanzini in defensive midfield on Monday may allow Moyes to exercise greater caution in the timing of Rice’s return.

The dilemma for Moyes is that an opposition midfield of Doucoure, Allan and Gomes will not give the Hammers the same room that they exploited so well at Burnley. Both Newcastle and Chelsea stifled West Ham by denying space for their runners. Although, the Hammer’s attacking dynamic is very different with Antonio back in the picture, Moyes must find the right balance between getting players forward and not being overrun in midfield.

Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined West Ham being in the mix for the Champion’s League with just four games of the season to go. It’s usually a tense relegation battle or midtable obscurity by now. I’m not quite sure what to expect or how to handle the raised expectations. It seems just as tense as when we are at the bottom and the same hypothetical ‘if-only’ thoughts frequently flash through my  mind – if-only we hadn’t thrown away a three goal lead against Arsenal.

All we can ask is that manager and team give it a real go. No-one can complain if they fall short. It’s been a magnificent effort.

My gut feel is a 2-0 home win, but I will wait to see what the psychic octopus predicts before committing.

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