The last Premier league fixture before the inevitable international break sees West Ham and Liverpool jockeying for position among the top four. It’s a scenario that would have been unimaginable Hammer’s fan not so long ago and is testimony to how far the club has progressed under the David Moyes revolution.
There have been complaints by supporters on social media that West Ham do not get the credit they deserve on TV and in the press – the last game on MOTD syndrome. I’m not sure that is justified as I have found a good deal of both positive and complementary coverage. Having said that though, the framing of today’s game is very much one of title contenders visiting top six hopefuls. Come the end of the season that may well be the case, but lets just enjoy rattling a few cages. The results, yesterday, mean that the dizzy heights of second place is now out of the question. But we can still end the weekend, and go into the break, just three points behind the leaders.
They say that winning can become a habit. The same apparently applies to expecting your team to win, and it was disappointing to see the Hammers pegged back in Genk on Thursday evening. It was another of those inexplicable slow starts – can someone tell me why that happens – that set the tone for much of the first half, where Genk were a little unfortunate not to extend their lead. The home side were able to carve through the Hammer’s rear-guard at will and deservedly took an early lead when Issa Diop (who had previously been demonstrating something of a renaissance in the European games) played the role of nowhere man in defence. A similarly slow start today could prove disastrous.
The Hammers, though, are nothing if not resilient these days though and with the help of two fine Said Benrahma goals appeared to have paved the way for a fourth successive win. Sadly, a clumsy Tomas Soucek own goal brought the scores level and the spoils were to be shared. The point was enough to ensure progression to the knockout phase of the competition but leaves work to be done to secure the all-important top spot. Dreams of appearing in this season’s elite Europa Conference league now lay in tatters.
Benrahma’s goals may well have saved his place in today’s starting eleven. His tenure in the difficult to fill central attacking midfield position had come under intense pressure from a rejuvenated Manuel Lanzini. Unless there are late injury issues, I now see the only outstanding selection question is whether it will be Ben Johnson or Vladimir Coufal at right back. The idea of leaving out Coufal a few weeks ago would have been met with incredulity. But such has been Johnson’s form that it now feels highly probable. Competition for places is a wonderful thing.
In my life as a West Ham supporter, Liverpool have been, by far, our most unproductive opponent. Recent form shows a return of just two points, out of a possible thirty, in the last ten league meetings. You must go back to the 2015/ 16 season for the last Hammer’s success – when three of them came along at once. The 2-0 win at Upton Park in January 2016 was in the early days of Klopp’s reign at Anfield and it is now a much-changed Liverpool side. While Angelo Ogbonna, Aaron Cresswell, Michail Antonio, Mark Noble and Lanzini all played in that game for West Ham, only Firmino remains from the visiting team – and he is reported to be a non-starter today.
Unlike many West Ham fans, or at least the vocal ones you find on social media, I have a lot of admiration for what Klopp has achieved. Certainly, the media adoration for all things Liverpool can be tiresome – I can almost hear Peter Drury preparing to Salah-vate from the sublime to the sumptuous – but if I was forced to choose between Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool as league champions, I would opt for Liverpool. Of the three, Klopp has extracted more from fewer resources and he puts out a team that are generally entertaining to watch.
At one point I believed that Declan Rice might end up at Liverpool if/ when he eventually leaves West Ham. But now, I’m not so sure. First, I doubt whether he is any longer in their price range. And second, would he want to be constrained by what is largely a water carrying midfield trio? Rice at Liverpool could be a frightening prospect but for now he is 100% leading the West Ham charge and embodying the incredible spirit that has been created within the squad. Long may we see him here, there and everywhere on the London Stadium pitch.
The visitors are the only remaining unbeaten side in the Premier league although they have been held to a draw in four of their ten games to date. This includes last weekend’s surrender of a two-goal lead to Brighton. The interesting tactical change that Seagulls made after a torrid opening was to limit the threat of the Liverpool full-backs by keeping them busy defending. I’m hoping we will do something similar this weekend. Without doubt Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals must get back to fulfil defensive duties, but they must also push forward quickly to pose their own questions as often as possible. So much of Liverpool’s threat comes down the flanks, and that is where the game will be won and lost.
My expectations are that West Ham have to make a better fist of this game than they did last season. A replay of that meek surrender cannot be acceptable. I’m confident both manager and players will have learned from that experience and know they must approach the game without any sense of inferiority. It’s not a game to just sit back in. It is dreamland to go into the international break in the top four. Perhaps a draw is realistically the best we can hope for but I will go one better and predict the Hammers to win a pulsating game 3-2. Don’t let me down. COYI!