We’re now in the home straight with just a few days of the domestic football season to go, and things are still not settled at the top or the bottom of the Premier League. West Ham have just two games to go, the visit of the champions (elect) Manchester City today, and then a trip to the south coast next Sunday to visit a resurgent Brighton side who now sit just outside the top eight. And those two games (plus the fixtures involving Manchester United and Wolves) will determine whether we finish sixth (qualification for Europa League again), seventh (Europa Conference League) or eighth (not in Europe at all).
In theory finishing sixth is in our own hands. If we win our last two games that is where we will be. Of course that’s easier said than done with the two fixtures that we face. We can even do it if we win just one of them and Manchester United lose at Crystal Palace in their final game, which is entirely possible. Or if Manchester United draw at Selhurst Park next Sunday then four points from our two games would be enough.
Finishing seventh looks the most likely outcome and we need just one point to guarantee that. We may not even need that if Wolves fail to win both of their remaining games, against Norwich (almost a given), and then at Anfield on the final day of the season. Normally I would not give Wolves too much of a chance to beat Liverpool away from home, but if the title is out of the Merseysiders reach as they go into that match, and in preparation for a Champions League final later in the month then they might take their foot off the gas. Although Wolves lost 5-1 at home to Manchester City in midweek they didn’t play that badly.
To finish eighth would be a disappointing end to what has once again been an excellent season. Of course we would have taken it a couple of years ago, but having had a taste of Europe we want more, and to miss out so narrowly would be a shame. Looking back on the season there are moments where we lost out, sometimes very late in the game, where we might have done slightly better and would already have Europe sewn up by now. The matches I am thinking about are the defeats at home by a single goal to Brentford and Leeds, the draw at home to Burnley, and the last minutes of the Manchester United game at the London Stadium. That’s not to forget Brighton’s last minute equaliser too. And we would already be there too if Wolves hadn’t equalised in the 97th minute at Chelsea last weekend.
So, still all to play for beginning with Manchester City today. Personally I like to watch City play and really enjoyed their 5-1 demolition of Wolves in the week. In an attacking sense they have such an array of forwards that they can call upon, and they have scored more goals than anyone in the Premier League this season with 94 to date. But if that wasn’t enough they will have one of the most prolific European goalscorers (Haaland) in addition next season. You might think that their defence is not so good, but once again they are the best performing Premier League side with just 22 goals conceded so far.
A lot has been written about their defensive injury problems going into the game, but they have adequate resources to cover this with Ake (a much under-rated player in my opinion, and who is returning from injury himself) and others who can fill in. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see one or more of Fernandinho and Laporte making a rapid recovery and being fit to start the game. I have no sympathy for them with their resources and the players at their disposal.
The game will mark the final home appearance of Mark Noble who has been a tremendous servant of the club, both on and off the field. At his best he could easily have won an England cap or two, just his lack of pace stopping him from being a really top class player, but nevertheless still a very good one. Who can forget his testimonial game at Upton Park on that hot, sunny afternoon six years ago, with memories of Adrian (plus minder) running the length of the field to score, plus Dean Ashton’s stunning overhead kick? But he joins the list of West Ham players who should perhaps have won an England cap but didn’t. Billy Bonds and Pop Robson are the two that spring readily to mind. Can you think of others?
So what will happen today? I can see it clearly it now how the game will end. The score will be 2-2 going into the final minute and we will be awarded a penalty. Mark Noble, who was brought on for the last ten minutes of the game, steps up and slams it home for a famous 3-2 victory which ensures West Ham qualification for Europe, puts the pressure on Manchester United, and keeps the broadcasters happy with the title race going into the final weekend. West Ham will finish sixth if they can out-perform Manchester United in the final game next weekend. Now that would be a fairy tale ending to the season and Mark Noble’s playing career wouldn’t it?
What are the chances? Well according to bookmakers you can get 300/1 and upwards on Mark Noble scoring the last goal of the game in a 3-2 West Ham victory. It won’t happen of course but I can dream can’t I? But we have beaten both Liverpool and Chelsea with a 3-2 score this season. Why not a hat-trick of 3-2 victories against the top 3 teams in the league? That would cap a memorable season wouldn’t it?