The international break has given us all an extra week to admire West Ham’s lofty position in the Premier League table with a sense of smug satisfaction. Now comes the test as to whether they can stay the course – a furious run of ten games leading up to Christmas starting with a visit to Molineux on Saturday afternoon.
The Hammer’s form has been nothing less than remarkable in the opening months of the season. The only side in the division to win their last four games, unbeaten in seven games in all competitions – and unbeaten in eleven on the road. The last defeat coming in the last-minute to Brentford in early October.
It was disappointing that post match reporting on the pulsating victory against Liverpool was overshadowed by contrived controversy over supposed game changing refereeing decisions. There was so much to appreciate about the game as an advertisement for the Premier League and yet the referee took central stage. Most of the blame for that lies with Jurgen Klopp who showed himself to be the most ungracious of poor losers.
It was an excellent West Ham win which once again demonstrated the tenacity and character present in David Moyes’ side. That the top sides finish games knowing they have faced a tough, resilient, and talented opponent is all we can ask.
We probably shouldn’t be doing this, but it is tempting to make comparisons with the 2015/16 season – the year Leicester City won the Premier League title. The image below shows the table after an equivalent 11 matches. Leicester were sitting third behind Manchester City and Arsenal (having earned a point less than West Ham have now) with the Hammers hanging on in sixth place. Had we not just gone done to a disappointing 2-0 away defeat at Watford, things would have looked even rosier for Slaven Bilic’s side.
The noticeable feature of 2015/16 was that as well as Leicester performed, each of the other title contenders managed to screw up their own challenge. None of the other teams performed consistently well during the remainder of the season. Adding to the mystery, both Liverpool and Chelsea were nowhere to be seen, finishing eighth and tenth respectively. The chances of such a collective failure repeating itself is highly unlikely.
A look at this season’s current standings with a projection based on points per game being maintained to the end of the season has West Ham finishing on 79 points. That would be an incredible achievement – but unlikely to be enough to claim top spot. I doubt there are many supporters who truly believe a top four finish is achievable, but it is target worth aiming for. The recently announced investment in the club by Daniel Kretinsky certainly adds a new perspective on things, especially if it is backed up by player reinforcements in January. A long way to go, though!
Assuming all the players have returned from the international break in fine fettle, the only change for the Wolves game will be the one enforced by the probable long-term absence of Angelo Ogbonna – Craig Dawson being the obvious replacement. It is anticipated that Declan Rice will have recovered from illness and Pablo Fornals from the knock picked up playing for Spain. The Ben Johnson or Vladimir Coufal at right back is the other talking point. I believe it is Johnson’s shirt to lose.
It was great to see Michail Antonio make his mark on the international stage at long last, with two fine goals for Jamaica. Whenever he shapes up for a long shot my head is usually in my hands, but the strike against the USA was a cracker. Shots from outside the box are the least productive of goal attempts – it is seen as a defensive positive to limit your opponent to long shots – but when they come off, they can be spectacular. Will we now be treated to a flurry of long-range Antonio efforts? And what is the probable outcome? It’s a long shot, but it might just work!
Wolves are a side slowly emerging from the doldrums of Nuno’s time at the helm. New boss, Bruno Lage, is something of an unknown quantity as a manager with only an ultimately unsuccessful stint at Benfica behind him in the big time. Still, he met the exacting criteria required for the Wolves job by being Portuguese.
The Wanderers have had a mixed opening to the season. After a sluggish start they have climber to eighth in the table but have only faced Manchester United from the top six. Their five wins have been mid to lower table affairs against Watford, Southampton, Newcastle, Villa and Everton. Presented as being more adventurous than under Nuno, goals have been at a premium at both ends in their matches so far this season. Only games involving Southampton have witnessed fewer goals.
There was sad news from Molineux in the week with the death of Wolves legend (and member of the 1966 World Cup winning squad), Ron Flowers. I can remember him well from the very first football game I watched live on our newly acquired black and white TV – the 1960 FA Cup Final. A well-deserved Ron Flowers tribute will take place prior to Saturday’s kick-off. This looks like another tight game to me. Wolves have some dangerous players including Jimenez, Hee-Chan and the perpetually erratic Traore. Not convinced about them at the back. The ideal scenario is that Wolves push forward and fall into the trap of the breakaway Hammers counter-punch. And there is always the set piece danger. It is a game where if West Ham keep their discipline, they can come away with a narrow one-goal victory to make it five league wins on the trot. COYI!