Just under twenty months ago, Aston Villa earned a point at the London Stadium, on the final day of the 2019/20 season, to preserve their Premier League status. Defeat would have seen today’s visitors relegated on goal difference in place of Bournemouth. In a fraught and lengthy campaign West Ham finished one place and four points better off than the Villains.
The following season saw a significant improvement in the fortunes of both clubs. The Hammers finishing an unexpected sixth with 65 points, while Villa managed a creditable eleventh with 55 points. Both sides could potentially match those points tallies once the current season comes to an end.
A scan of the two teams that played in that July 2020 season finale tells very different stories. For Villa, only Mings, McGinn, and Luiz are in contention for a start today. On the other hand, the West Ham line-up shows an amazing familiarity. If it weren’t for injuries, up to eight or nine players might have featured both then and today. Since then there have been only four new arrivals who might realistically be classed as first-team regulars – Kurt Zouma, Craig Dawson, Vladimir Coufal and Said Benrahma. Arguably, only Zouma would get the starting call in a fully fit squad.
The story of West Ham’s past week has been one of missed goalscoring opportunities. With greater composure, Pablo Fornals and Manuel Lanzini should have earned at least a point at Anfield last weekend. And Nikola Vlasic and Michail Antonio were guilty of glaring misses in Seville. The Vlasic header would have brought howls of derision at a Sunday afternoon game over the park.
For all the ‘taking each game as it comes’ cliches we hear from coaches and players, I can’t believe that Thursday’s return leg with Sevilla isn’t at the forefront of everyone’s mind – even if it is unconsciously. The Europa League match is unquestionably a do-or-die affair, while there will still be another twenty-seven Premier League points to play for after today. So when push comes to shove, will that extra yard of pitch be covered, will every sinew in the body be stretched to breaking point, and will bodies be thrown on the line to make every desperate block or tackle? It’s not as if players need to worry about playing for their places, Indeed, it is testament to the spirit that exists in the club that we see as much effort as we do when there is little fear of competition.
Although not probable, it would be understandable if David Moyes acknowledged the reality of the situation and chose to leave any key players who are not 100% on the bench. Why not give Sonny Perkins, Armstrong Oko-Flex, or Dan Chesters a start rather than two minutes at the end? Or perhaps it is a game for Mark Noble to make one last start. It would be a calculated risk, but given that Villa’s main threat comes from the attacking instincts of Coutinho, Ings and Watkins, it would be manageable.
Coutinho possesses the precise attributes that would add an extra dimension to West Ham’s game. A player who can find and create space for himself, makes good decisions, passes well and weighs in with his fair share of goals. What a difference such a player could make.
It took Villa a long time, and a change of manager, to learn how to cope without one-time talisman, Jack Grealish. A lesson there as to what can happen when you become over reliant on a single player. There have been periods of inconsistency under Gerrard’s management but his team are currently on a hot streak with three straight wins at an aggregate score of 9-0.
West Ham achieved a win double over Villa in the last campaign and would repeat that feat with a win today. Villa’s 1-0 home win in May 2015 was their only success in the last eleven meetings between the two clubs. It will be tough for the Hammers to continue that ascendency and may have to do so with a share of the spoils. COYI!