It’s the Final Countdown: There Ain’t No Party Like A West Ham Party

With an exciting trip to Prague on their minds, West Ham have a pivotal role to play in the final relegation placings as they host Leeds United at the London Stadium

Yesterday’s round of matches provided the final mathematical proof to what most had realised several few weeks ago, that West Ham would be once again playing Premier League football next season. Complex modelling of different scenarios that would result in Leeds overturning the Hammers goal difference advantage cease to be relevant as the two sides clash at the London Stadium this afternoon.

It was an eventful week for West Ham as they saw off the challenge of AZ Alkmaar to reach the final of the Europa Conference League in Prague. A degree of confusion existed in post-match interviews as to the precise relevance of 43- and 47-year anniversaries in Hammer’s History. To clarify, it is, of course, 47 years since West Ham reached a European final; and it will be an opportunity to lift a first major trophy in 43 years. Hammers of a certain age may also be familiar with the rarely spoken about heart-breaking experience of the 2006 FA Cup Final but prefer to keep that painful memory well and truly buried, like a long forgotten disgraced family member. Although, I was ‘fortunate’ enough to be at the game, I have avoided ever watching the highlights again!

Most pundits took the view that David Moyes got his tactics ‘spot on’ against Alkmaar. By maintaining a compact shape and defending deep it limited the hosts to a handful of half chances. For all their pretty possession they created little threat – and might have played many hours without looking likely to score. The irony is that this was not a cunningly devised tactical masterstroke, it is how his team plays every week. But more on that another time, as it is only right to celebrate the prospect of a big night out in Prague on June 7. It was fantastic to see how much getting to the final meant to the players as they celebrated after the final whistle. And what a story for the immensely likeable Pablo Fornals to come off the bench and score a stunning winner as the clock ticked down. A remarkable moment! I was even touched by seeing a broad smile light up the manager’s face.

It was a disciplined and professional performance from West Ham. Solid right across the back and with Declan Rice and Lucas Paqueta putting in excellent shifts in midfield. More might have been achieved from counter-attacks but both Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma had below par nights. Bowen provided his usual good defensive cover – possibly expected to do too much defensively – but offered little going forward against young Hungarian full-back Milos Kerkez. If I was a scout I would add Kerkez to my watch list for what is a problem position at West Ham, although I hope our scouting network extends beyond players from teams we have beaten in cup competitions – Paul Hilton anyone?

I always think you can tell what sort of game Benrahma will have from his first two or three touches. If these go badly you may as well substitute him there and then. Or get him to change his boots. I see it as the exact opposite of the old Billy’s Boots comic strip which appeared many years ago in the Tiger and Scorcher. Rather than Billy turning into a superstar whenever he pulls on his magic boots, Benny and his boots sadly lose all coordination when attempting to shoot or cross.

A small group of curmudgeonly fans have been writing off the Conference as something of a tin-pot competition. It was clear (and encouraging) that the players see it completely differently. If the group stages can be a case of going through the motions, I doubt any of the participants take it easy once the knock-out starts. True it is Europe’s third tier competition, but there are not many opportunities in modern football for coaches and players to win trophies with the concentration of power in the hands of the monied few. And this is one of those occasions. West Ham could not have done much more than win 13 of their 14 matches played to reach the final. With silverware and potential qualification for next season’s Europa League up for grabs, it promises to be a great occasion.  

The Alkmaar match will also be long remembered for the heroics of Knollsy in coming to the rescue of the player’s family and friends who were targeted by a small group of home supporters attempting to storm the stands. Knollsy demonstrated some of the most uncompromising defending seen since the departure of Craig Dawson. AZ Ultra might easily be mistaken for the latest washing powder from Proctor & Gamble and it was heartening to see the ugly stains humiliatingly removed. Well done to Knollsy and also the players who leapt into the fray to protect their loved ones!

With the dust barely settled on Thursday’s semi-final it is back to Premier League action today where West Ham will play an important role on who joins Southampton in the Championship next year. A win for Nottingham Forest yesterday meant that all three of last season’s promoted clubs survive the drop, and narrowed the relegation field of two from Leicester, Leeds, and Everton. Leicester’s fate looks the most precarious even though nothing will be decided until next Sunday’s final games when all three teams have winnable home fixtures.

A win for Leeds today would put them in a strong position for survival with only a Spursy challenge to come. And we all know what Big Sam needing a win means for the way that a match might pan out. It will not be feast of footballing fun and entertainment. On the one hand West Ham will want to sign-off a memorable week on a positive note in the expectation of it being Declan Rice’s last game at the London Stadium as a West Ham player. On the other, Leeds tasked with spoiling the celebrations and sucking the atmosphere out of the party. The visitor’s pragmatic game plan will be to grab a goal and defend it with their lives.

I doubt Moyes will see the need to make wholesale changes from his normal team selection for the final matches. Maybe Kurt Zouma and Michail Antonio will be wrapped away in cotton wool until the final but that’s about it with just two games between now and the ECL Final.

Moyes will want to play fair for the relegation candidates. He must still have a soft spot for Everton and is said to be great friends with Allardyce through a shared football philosophy. In fact, I had an idea of Moyes and Allardyce featuring in a buddy TV series – think Coogan and Brydon or Whitehouse and Mortimer – where they hunt fossils on the Jurassic coast while reminiscing on their favourite scoreless draws. The working title is Sam and Dave’s Clean Sheets with Hold On, I’m Coming as the theme tune. Could be a winner!

A last home game of the season without any pressure other than a few million in positional merit money would typically be a massive party day. But with Big Sam not being the ideal party guest, the action on the pitch might end up being incidental to having a laugh, a joke and an old fashioned sing-song. COYI!

Going Dutch: West Ham Require Courage To Complete Double Over AZ Alkmaar

Can West Ham go one better than last season to reach a Euro semi-final. It would provide a silver lining to a dismal season but are David Moyes and his team brave enough to pull it off?

West Ham face a Dutch reckoning this evening when they travel to the North Holland city of Alkmaar for the second leg of their Europa Conference League semi-final. Holding a slender 2-1 advantage from last Thursday’s opener, the Hammers must silence a passionate home support if they are to reach a first European final since 1976 and remain on course for their first senior trophy in 43 years.

A more adventurous approach at the London Stadium would surely have put the Hammers in pole position against what, on the day, was an underwhelming AZ Alkmaar outfit. The visitors enjoyed plenty of possession but had few ideas going forward. Even so, they had earned themselves a half-time lead courtesy of shoddy defensive covering and poor goalkeeping by the Hammer’s rear-guard. But West Ham were able to turn the tie around with a far more aggressive second half performance which clearly unsettled a shaky Alkmaar defence.

Chances are it will be a very different AZ side that we see today on home turf. Their record in front of their own supporters, both in Europe and domestically, is impressive and they have won all eight of the home fixtures played so far in this season’s Conference League. The return from suspension of Milos Kerkez, a fleet-footed 19-year-old full-back, will add an extra dimension to their attacking play which was badly missing in the first leg. They will be highly motivated to add a Premier League scalp to the list of conquests.

The big worry for West Ham fans is how will David Moyes approach the game. In his pre-match interviews, he was keen to point out that European football had been a new experience for the team last season and that they would have learned from the experience of the semi-final exit against Eintracht Frankfurt. A more pertinent question, however, might be what lessons did he take on board from the two legged defeat? Will he oversee yet another typically slow and timid start from his charges – one that again pays his opponent far too much respect – or does he demonstrate belief in his players having the talent and ability to cause major problems for the Alkmaar defence, and put the tie beyond doubt on their own terms?

It would be out of character for Moyes to allow players greater freedom, but maybe the players will take it on themselves not to let caution deny them a shot at glory in Prague next month. It is puzzling to see the Hammers still being described as a fast counter attacking team. That may have had some justification two seasons ago, but this term the statistics show only one goal (in the Premier League) being the result of a counterattack. Away from home especially, West Ham have become almost exclusively a set-piece team.  We really do need to see more than that tonight.

Defeat for the Hammers second string at Brentford on Sunday told us little that we didn’t already know. The key takeaways being: despite last summer’s recruitment the squad depth and balance remains below standard, in the absence of Michail Antonio there isn’t even the semblance of an attacking plan, and the handball rule gets more ridiculous each week. The only player starting on Sunday to start again today is likely to be Nayef Aguerd, ironic in some ways because he had a hand in both of the goals conceded. He does, however, look more composed alongside Kurt Zouma. My predicted line-up is: Areola, Kehrer (or Coufal), Zouma, Aguerd, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Paqueta, Bowen, Antonio, Benrahma.

West Ham’s Dutch connection is not a strong one. The only previous competitive encounter with Dutch opponents was the stirring quarter final come-back against Den Haag – now floundering in the second tier of the Dutch league – in March 1976. And while the Premier League has seen a breath-taking array of Dutch talent pass through, including Bergkamp, van Persie, van Dijk, van Nistelrooy, Stam, Hasselbaink, Overmars, and Gullit, none of these have made it across to the east-end. The best the Hammers have been able to offer is Atteveld, Boere, and Boogers. Quite surprising that players from the Netherlands and Belgium are rarely on the West Ham radar.

Experience tells us that tonight will not be plain sailing. It’s just not the West Ham way. I have been growing my finger nails all week to ensure there is something to chew in the final 15 to 20 minutes as the Hammers retreat further and further back towards goal – and also allowing for extra time and penalties. I do believe with the right attitude we should be able to control the game and come away victorious on the night as well as on aggregate. I only see the manager getting in the way of that expectation. Or can he changes his ways? As Newcastle manager Joe Harvey might have said back in 1969 “Faint heart never won Fairs Cup.” Go for it, Dave. COYI!

Will It Be Yet Another “Nil Points” Against Brentford For Euro Bound Hammers?

The seduction of the Europa Conference Final will overshadow this weekend’s contractual obligation derby in west London. Moyes will be keen to rest key players.

In the end the AZ Almaar team that turned up at the London Stadium were not quite ‘as advertised’. In the pre-match build-up their reputation had escalated from being ‘no mugs’ to becoming an amazing fast raiding side who would weave intricate patterns around the pitch. In practice, they were rather pedestrian. If there was an element of Brighton about them, it was early Potter vintage and not the free-scoring De Zerbi incarnation.

Nevertheless, David Moyes had predictably treated the threat with the utmost caution. If AZ were a side who liked to break the press by tempting an opponent to commit, Moyes would counter that by refusing to press at all, and reverting to the favoured default low block. There’s nothing that takes him higher than an overdose of caution.

Ultimately, it took the gift of a poorly conceded goal to stir West Ham from their stupor. Several players were hoping for a foul, Tomas Soucek was slow to close down, and Alphonse Areola was embarrassed by a tame shot that he should easily have dealt with. It was to the Hammers credit that they eventually turned the match around, but the feeling at the final whistle was of an opportunity missed.  The visitors looked uncomfortable in the face of any physical challenge, and even a modicum of adventure would surely have allowed West Ham to establish an unassailable first-leg advantage.

Instead, we are left with a tie that could go either way in the second leg. A game where Moyes is banking on his team’s resilience to reach the final. Now, I’m all in favour of resilience, but isn’t an attribute that would be called for against heavyweights such as Manchester City or Real Madrid – not against relative Dutch unknowns. A big spending Premier League side should be looking to overcome teams like AZ through the excellence of their football rather than resilience.  

Sandwiched between the two European Conference semi-final encounters is a bothersome end-of-season affair at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium. Mathematically, West Ham could still end the season in the bottom three but the alignment of fortunes required for that to happen are as improbable as the United Kingdom winning the Eurovision Song Contest.

Brentford are already assured a top ten finish which is a remarkable achievement by manager Thomas Frank and his players. In certain aspects of style, there are uncanny similarities between the way Brentford and West Ham approach games. Neither is too bothered about the chore of ball possession and both favour launching it long as the cornerstone of attacking ambitions. In terms of attitude, however, the teams are streets apart. Brentford approach games without fear of any opposition, press higher up the pitch, and routinely setup with two dedicated strikers. Indeed, Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo are pivotal to Brentford’s success. If and when Toney receives the threatened lengthy ban for betting rule breaches – why has this taken so long – it will be a major blow.

The trade-off for this reckless sense of adventure is being more open at the back. No-one has made more saves in the Premier League this season than the Brentford keeper, and only Bournemouth and Everton have faced more opposition shots. Despite this, they have conceded five goals fewer than West Ham – and scored 14 more.

There’s plenty of speculation that Moyes will rest a number of players for tomorrow’s game. It would be foolish to play Michail Antonio given that he is the only player in the squad capable of playing the Moyes striker role. He may also choose to omit Kurt Zouma, Declan Rice, and Jarrod Bowen. Very likely we will see a 5-3-2 starting eleven along the following lines: Fabianski, Johnson, Kehrer, Aguerd, Cresswell, Emerson, Downes, Soucek, Paqueta, Ings, Cornet  

When West Ham made it to the final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976 they took just two points from the final eight league games. It feels like similar territory that we are now in. Survival may well be mathematically confirmed this weekend and after that there will be just the one prize.

The Hammers have yet to take a point off Brentford since their promotion to the Premier League. The chances on ending that run tomorrow seem remote. But maybe there’s the chance of a scrappy end-of-season draw. COYI!

Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again? Or Can West Ham Navigate The A to Z Of Alkmaar To Reach Euro Final

We have all been here before. The Europa Conference is a chance to add a silver lining to West Ham’s otherwise dismal season. Can the Hammers go one step further than last year as they prepare to face a dangerously underrated AZ Alkmaar side?

It was just over twelve months ago that West Ham faced Eintracht Frankfurt in a first leg tie of the Europa League semi-final at the London Stadium. Excitement and expectations were high but on the night the Hammers were distinctly second best and were fortunate to come out of the match with just a single goal deficit. Aaron Cresswell’s foolish red card in the opening 20 minutes of the return leg effectively ended any hope of a stirring comeback. The disappointment of missing out on the final haunting the club well into this season.

The second UEFA semi-final in a row is, of course, a rung lower on the Euro ladder – a competition that receives little media attention. West Ham’s progress to the semi-final has been largely plain sailing-the only exception being a sub-par performance in the drawn quarter-final away leg at Gent – the one game out of 12 in the competition that the Hammers failed to win. The semi-final tie against a youthful and energetic AZ Alkmaar side, however, promises to be a much tougher proposition.

Interestingly, West Ham’s form going into tonight’s game is slightly ahead of what it it was in the same period last year, where the Hammers had saved their best performances for Europa League clashes with Sevilla and Lyon, while domestic form nosedived after the new year. Hopefully, the energy shown in the deserved win against Manchester United can be the boost needed to ensure history does not repeat itself.

For AZ, tonight’s game will be their 17th match in this season’s Europa Conference, having entered at the Second Qualifying stage. They have won 13 of the previous 16 games and finishing top of Group E before beating Lazio (in both legs) in the Round of 16 and Anderlecht (on penalties) in the Quarter Final.

They are no stranger to European competition having participated in 21 different seasons, including one entry each into the European Cup and Champions League. Their best achievement to date was as runners-up to Ipswich, over two legs, in the 1981 UEFA Cup Final.

Alkmaar currently sit fourth in the Eredivisie with three games to play, two points behind Ajax in third, with whom they played out a scoreless draw at the weekend. I’ve no direct experience of watching AZ but reports speak of a young side that aims to control a high percentage of tactical possession in order to draw out opponents. They play with fluidity and movement with pacey, attacking full-backs and penetrating midfield runs from deep. It all sounds rather Brighton-esque to me – and we know how that usually turns out.

There are a several familiar Premier League names in the squad with Matty Ryan (ex-Brighton) in goal, Bruno Martins Indi (ex-Stoke) in defence, and Jordy Clasie (ex-Southampton) in midfield. Heading a group of talented youngsters are full-backs Yukinari Sugawara and Milos Kerkez (suspended today) and midfielders Sven Mijnans and Jesper Karlsson (doubtful). The main goal threat comes from Greek international striker, Vangelis Pavlidis.

AZ are managed by London born, Pascal Jansen – his British mother was a one-time pop-star in the band Spooky and Sue. Jansen has managed the side since December 2020 when Arend Slot left to manage Feyenoord. Previous incumbents of the AZ hot-seat include Louis Van Gaal, Ronald Koeman, Dick Advocaat and Marco Van Basten.

In his post-match press conference, David Moyes claimed that getting to the European Conference Final would be the highlight of his managerial career. It would be a fine achievement and I hope he achieves it – but it is possibly not the greatest return from a 25-year career.

If West Ham are to progress, they will need to be alert and focused from the first to last whistle. This will be a stern test against an opponent with the kind of attributes that have routinely bewildered the Hammers in previous encounters. The sluggish opening 20 to 25 minutes which has been a far too frequent feature of West Ham performances needs to be left in the changing rooms. It was even evident in Sunday’s otherwise excellent win against Manchester United. I would take the rampant, swaggering West Ham that we saw in the second half against the Red Devils to win today’s tie comfortably, but it is an all too rare occurrence these days.

The psychological disadvantage of playing the first leg at home is always a concern even though the scrapping of the away goals rule has diminished much of the logical difference. Will Moyes and the team have learned from last years’ experience when they paid the price for a slow start and failure to plan for and adapt to the opponent’s positive approach? They will underestimate Alkmaar at their peril.

A potential point of unpredictability tonight is the appointment of young Turkish referee, Halil Umut Meler as the man in the middle. In 23 games officiated this season he has brandished a prolific 101 yellow and eight red cards. Perhaps some comfort that the majority of these have been in the Turkish Super Lig which I imagine might be prone to volatility. In six UEFA games, his record is 19 yellows and one red – the red a very clear and obvious professional foul (Aaron, please take note!) 

Moyes will no doubt field his strongest possible starting eleven tonight – last Sunday’s side except for Alphonse Areola replacing Lukasz Fabianski. It should be enough to get a result but any side that can beat Lazio home and away cannot be taken lightly. In a disappointing, depressing season for West Ham, success in this competition would produce an unexpected silver lining. There is a lot riding on this game. COYI!

Sticking Point: West Ham’s Desperate Scramble for Safety Meets Manchester United’s Stuttering Champions League Ambitions

With three league defeats on the bounce, West Ham badly need a boost to survival and European hopes when they meet inconsistent Manchester United at the London Stadium

Tonight sees part two of the Manchester duology when West Ham entertain Manchester United in an inconvenient early evening kick-off at the London Stadium.

Part one of the showdown went pretty much according to script with a routine win for perennial champions, Manchester City. Compared to the dire pre-match predictions of many Hammers fans – including myself – it could have been a far worse outcome. West Ham never looked capable of scoring more than NIL, but the potentially crucial goal difference advantage didn’t take too big a hammering.

It was inevitable that Haaland would break the Premier League most goals in a season record in this game and Danny ings will forever be able to describe his pivotal assist in the build-up. City took yet another stride towards the title yesterday with a 2-1 win over Fat Sam’s Leeds United – a much closer contest score-wise than our own encounter, although mostly due to the hosts easing up in the second half with a Champions League semi-final on the horizon. No doubt, Guardiola will have something to say to his players about the unprofessional penalty taking debacle that precipitated their late wobble. Anyone remember Paul Kitson against Everton in April 1997?

A surprising element for me was that our boys managed a staggering 31% possession in the game – more than double than anticipated. But possession is a strange thing. Out of curiosity, I looked up the stats for when Brentford became the only team to win at The Etihad so far this season (in November) and compared these to the Hammer’s recent effort:

Brentford: Possession (25%)  Passes (216)  Pass Accuracy (56%)  Corners (2)

West Ham: Possession (31%) Passes (327) Pass Accuracy (77%)   Corners (3)

Brentford also faced more opposition goal attempts than West Ham – 29 to 16. But they did create more attempts themselves – a total of 10 to West Ham’s 6. As ever, the most telling of all statistics is goals scored, and the Bees netted twice from 8 shots on target – testament to their setup and the double spearhead of Toney and Mbeumo. West Ham on the other hand never seriously threatened the City goal. Still, shows how misleading the stats can be!

While City are now several streets ahead of their one-time imperious neighbours, the Manchester Reds remain in contention for Champions League qualification. Now on their sixth manager since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his changing room hairdryer, they have never looked anywhere close to reproducing their previous dominance. The promising signs of Erik ten Hag’s early reign have slowly been swamped by a wave of inconsistency. The impression is a collection of talented individuals rather than a convincing, cohesive team on the cusp of a return to greatness. Today they may well be either galvanised or traumatised by the prospect of Liverpool coming up on the top four rails.

Any belief that Manchester United are a far less formidable opponent than in days gone by has yet to be translated into positive results for West Ham. The most recent Hammers victory in the league was a 2-0 win (Yarmolenko, Cresswell) for Pellegrini’s Hammers in September 2019. This was followed by a draw and then five straight defeats. Even in our two fantastic seasons (© D Moyes) the home fixture was lost 1-3 and 1-2 respectively. So, what cunning plan might the Moyesiah have up his sleeve for today? Could it be the revolutionary tactics of defend in depth and hope to score from a set piece or breakaway? Intriguingly, this is also Manchester United’s masterplan.

I sometimes have sympathy with football manager’s having to come out to face the cameras each week while the heat of battle and the frustrations of another incompetent performance are still fresh in the memory. While the victorious manager can afford to be magnanimous – see Pep praising West Ham’s resilience – the loser has to spin out the latest in the long line of tame excuses, especially when there is no contentious VAR decision lifeline to rant about. Unfortunately, when Moyes has his back to the wall, he is prone to petulance and unwise criticism of individual players not ideal for team morale.

However, there is no excuse for spouting the same level of unbelievable nonsense in the calm of the pre-match preparations. This week’s corker was Moyes attempt to explain why Maxwell Cornet had played so few minutes since his recovery from injury in late March. The reason, apparently, is that the established players (Michail Antonio and Ings) are already doing a really good job in that position. Thanks for clearing that up, David! It must be a particular problem for a manager who doesn’t realise he is allowed to make tactical adjustments with his substitutions as well as like for like changes.

Defeat today and West Ham will go in to the first leg of the European Conference semi-final with the spectre of relegation continuing to hang over them. A win would almost guarantee survival while a share of the points would leave work to be done.

It will be business as usual on team selection as Moyes welcomes back food poisoning victims Declan Rice, Nayef Aguerd and Tomas Soucek. It is rumoured that Soucek experienced his most explosive runs of the season during the absence. Either Ben Johnson or Thilo Kehrer will replace the injured Vladmir Coufal and there will be a toss-up between Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals to fill the problematic wide left berth. Other than that, same shoot, different weekend.

With games rapidly running out, we are left again to hope for the best and fear the worst. I wonder if it possible to borrow that Stone of Destiny for the afternoon? COYI!

Exclusive: West Ham Unlikely To Win At The Etihad Stadium Tonight

A weary, relegation threatened West Ham team and a manager with no plan for winning travel to meet the unstoppable champions-elect in Manchester this evening. What could possibly go wrong?

David Moyes dreadful managerial record in away games to top sides – no wins in 70-odd attempts – comes under the spotlight again as West Ham visit Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium this evening. In a fixture that would feature as the least winnable match of the season, even in the best of circumstances, is effectively a ‘gimme’ for the home side based on current trajectories and historic performance.

The Citizens are unbeaten in the Premier League since losing to Tottenham (yes, really) on 5 February. Since then, they have won ten and drawn one in their customary storming end to the season. At home they have dropped just five points in 16 games.

By contrast, West Ham go into the game off the back of two consecutive defeats. The short-lived feel-good factor following the win at Bournemouth now a distant memory. If a few positives could be taken from the unfortunate home defeat to Liverpool, the performance at Crystal Palace has to be one of the most abysmal of the season. With a final scoreline that seriously flattered the Hammers, and failed to represent the gulf between the two teams, this was Moyesball at its most depressing. Having witnessed this cautious, uninspiring fare for the best part of eighteen months has become so painful that the Sisyphean task of rolling a huge rock uphill for eternity is starting to look attractive. Please pray to your favourite deity that this is Moyes propreantepenultimate match in charge as West Ham manager.

If there was any mitigation for the Palace display it was the unhelpful Saturday lunchtime kick-off in the middle of West Ham’s intense fixture schedule. A situation exacerbated by an over-reliance on a handful of core players – particularly Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen, and Michail Antonio – who looked exhausted and frustrated. It has become a carbon copy of last season’s run-in where fatigue saw the team stumbling across the finishing line having fallen away in both domestic and European competition.

Palace only needed a basic competence to dominate the game on Saturday. In Zaha, Eze, and Olise they have players with pace, close control, and an ability to run with the ball that is missing from the Hammers midfield. All the visitors could offer was a threat from set pieces. Strange that the goal finally separating the two sides was a penalty awarded for a blatant dive – one that VAR deemed to be acceptable. It was the second poor penalty related decision that went against West Ham in four days -decisions that could still turn out to be significant and costly. Equally strange, were the strange substitutions and the Hammers reluctance to go all out for an equaliser once the score had been brought back to 4-3 with 20 minutes to play.

I’m not as confident as some Hammers fans that survival is all but guaranteed this season. We are certainly better placed than the five teams below us, but the probability of failing to pick up any more points is not as remote as might be believed. Tonight is the game in hand with a danger that the goal difference advantage will not be quite as healthy once it is over. Although, in practice West Ham have saved their heftier drubbings by City for home games.  

Manchester City are now firm favourites to claim their third Premier League title in a row, making it five in ten years – unless they are relegated for the 100 or more breaches of FA rules and regulations under investigation. City have become even more formidable under the leadership of Pep Guardiola during a period where the other would-be title pretenders have all struggled for consistency. Guardiola is widely recognised as a tactical genius but needs a Champions League win or two to cement that title. Genius or not, he operates with a spectacular financial advantage compared to others with a bottomless transfer kitty. Scouting the goal scoring machine that is Erling Haaland was hardly a difficult, insightful or risky decision to take. Even under the guidance of Moyes at West Ham, Haaland would be leading scorer with seven or eight goals by now!

With a trip to Real Madrid to prepare for next week, Guardiola may rest key players for tonight’s game. Not that it will affect the result, but it might keep the score down a little. Moyes may be equally tempted into a spot of squad rotation with games against Manchester United and AZ Alkmaar to come in the next eight days. But we should remember that a slightly weakened Manchester City team is a very different beast to a slightly weakened West Ham one.

Both Rice and Bowen deserve a break and Antonio needs careful management. Rice has played every Premier League minute so far this season, and Bowen has missed just 22 minutes. Although Antonio has only played the equivalent of 18 games this season, he has featured heavily in all recent matches since the penny dropped that in buying Danny Ings, West Ham have yet again recruited a player wholly unsuited to the role required by the manager.

The reason that Moyes has such a terrible record away to top sides is that he approaches these games with the sole intention of trying not to lose. That this strategy has largely failed has never deterred him from giving it one more try. I’m sure he will play with five at the back again today with a game plan of all behind the ball and hoof it away as far as possible, hoping to win an occasional corner for an attempt on goal. My best guess is for West Ham to enjoy around 12% possession. Our best hope? That City get a couple of goals in front and then declare, conserving energy for the more challenging tasks in the weeks ahead. What a waste. COYI!

A Dangerous Outbreak of Optimism Reported at The London Stadium as West Ham Entertain Liverpool

A spectacular FA Youth Cup success has added to the feel-good factor at West Ham prompted by an upturn in league performances and qualification for the Europa Conference semi-final

It’s been a massive week to ten days at West Ham that has (for now) completely changed the vibe surrounding the club. The surprise spirited comeback against Arsenal, easing past Gent in the Europa Conference, the demolition of Bournemouth have now been topped off by the U18s spectacular 5-1 triumph in the FA Youth Cup Final at The Emirates Stadium.

The Youth Cup win was the first since the Cole and Carrick class of 1999 won a two-legged final against Coventry City. It was a proud day for what looks to be a very strong and talented squad of lads. Here’s hoping a good few of them go on to carve out distinguished careers in professional football, whether that is at West Ham (obviously) or elsewhere in the game.

Although the trip to Bournemouth always suggested it might be a winnable game, the style and nature of victory was wholly unexpected. An unheard-of brace of early goals set the tone of the match and the travelling fans were treated to the most expressive football of the Hammer’s season to date. The long deserted swagger had returned, and for a while, it was as if the clocks had been put back by two years. The mind is often conflicted in such circumstances. Was the performance down to West Ham’s excellence or the result of Bournemouth’s deficiencies. The next two games against Liverpool tonight and Palace on Saturday will provide further evidence.

The risk of relegation hasn’t receded completely but on current trajectory is very remote now. I don’t see a scenario where four or more of the bottom six teams manage to scramble to 35 points by the end of the season. There are sure to be more surprises, though, and remember that nothing is settled until survival is mathematically certain.

As things stand, West Ham are sixth in the Premier League form table with 11 points from the last six matches played. Indeed, if we take the narrow view that form is only about results – and ignore the quality of performance – the Hammers have been on an improving trend since the turn of the year. The 17 matches before the new year yielded just 14 points (a relegation bound 0.82 points per game) but the 14 matches in 2023 have generated 20 points (1.42 ppg). So, recent form, while not stellar, is good enough for mid-table obscurity. There will be claims that the upturn validates the Board’s decision to stick with Moyes in the darkest hour, but that is not proven beyond reasonable doubt. For perspective, in the same new year period, a once struggling Aston Villa have averaged over two points per game under Unai Emery to become credible top six finishers.

Of course, many would argue that football should be as much about entertainment as results – something that has been sadly lacking in the dull, passive, and predictable fare on show for most of the campaign. It is a distinction that is close to the hearts of supporters but is almost exclusively overlooked by pundits. Media coverage outside the rich six is, as ever, scandalously superficial.

If the new hint of adventure that has emerged in recent weeks is not just a flash in the pan, it begs the question ‘what has changed?’ Did the manager buckle to pressure and release the handbrake? Did the drab victories against the likes of Southampton and Fulham inspire the confidence to play with greater adventure? Did player-power break out and force a change of thinking? Has Lucas Paqueta finally adjusting to the demands of the Premier League provided a game-changing extra dimension going forward? Has the return of Mark Noble to the club improved communication between manager and players and taken some of the load away from Declan Rice? Or did every player lose and then rediscover form at the same time? Perhaps it is a mixture of them all.


The 2022/23 season has been equally underwhelming for this evening’s visitors, Liverpool. Having spent the previous few years going toe-to-toe with Manchester City for the title, they now find themselves in a pitch battle with Tottenham to qualify for the continent’s pre-eminent cup competition – the Europa Conference League. Ensuring that the competition gets a lot more media attention than it gathered this year.

The Liverpool side has the look of a squad urgently in need of a major surgery and overhaul this season as key players have aged or become stale. Lacking the resources available to other title hopefuls, the Reds opted to throw all their cash at forwards while neglecting the shortcomings of a defensively vulnerable back four and pedestrian, lacklustre midfield. The Klopp style of play may well have exceeded its best before date with more opponents having worked out how to counter it effectively. They clearly still possess a dangerous goal scoring threat when things go well – Jota is the man to watch for me. It just doesn’t come off as much as it used to.

I’m expecting a largely unchanged West Ham eleven for the game. Possibly the only question-mark would be over Said Benrahma who has continued to labour of late. There are many clamouring for the inclusion of Pablo Fornals after his elaborate drunken scorpion strike on Sunday and it is a switch that Moyes might well be considering. Fornals doesn’t provide too much of an attacking threat when playing out wide but offers better defensive cover than a ball-watching Benny. This could provide useful assistance to Aaron Cresswell’s attempts to handle Salah.

There can be no more likeable a character in the Hammers squad than Fornals. It would be great to see him get more minutes, but the reality is that he is now primarily understudy to Paqueta. The idea of playing him in place of Thomas Soucek (as some have suggested) sounds disastrous to me. Not because Soucek deserves his place, but because Pablo is nowhere near strong enough to compete as a defensive minded midfield player at this level.

If West Ham show plenty of aggression tonight it will unsettle Liverpool – they don’t like it up ‘em, these days for some reason. There’s no chance of the Hammers bossing possession but as long as they press higher up the pitch, avoid giving away free kicks on the edge of the area, and can break at speed there is no reason the feel-good factor cannot be extended even further. It’s suddenly not so bad being a West Ham fan. COYI!   

Survival Back On The Agenda As West Ham Head South To Visit The Vitality Bowl Of Cherries

West Ham must stop Billing to achieve top billing in the latest relegation scrap against Bournemouth. The Hammers need to display their new-found spirit and resilience if they are to pip the Cherries for the points.

West Ham eased themselves into the Europa Conference semi-finals on Thursday night with what turned out to be a comfortable victory over KAA Gent. Following yet another slow, stuttering start the Hammers picked up the tempo around the half-hour mark before running riot in the second period. The margin of victory should possibly have been even greater.

There is now the small matter of five Premier League fixtures in 15 days before the semi-final against AZ Alkmaar on May 11. With the first leg being played at the London Stadium this has the makings of a tricky tie against an unknown Dutch opponent. At first glance the relative youth of the Alkmaar team – an average age more than four years junior to the Hammers – raises anxiety levels, especially if it is the case that youthfulness equates to fast and energetic.

In an ideal world, West Ham will have been able to preserve their Premier League status before the Conference games resume. To do so will require a haul of six or seven points from the next five games. It’s a return that is above the season-to-date average – although below the last five match total of eight points.

Little further clarity was provided on the likely outcome of the relegation scramble from the games already played in the current round of matches. A win for Leicester puts them back in play while a point apiece for Southampton and Everton does more for morale than league position. Defeats for Leeds and Forest leaves both even more exposed to the dreaded drop

The run of West Ham’s five survival games kicks-off with a trip to the south coast to play Bournemouth this afternoon. It was not long ago that the Cherries were everyone’s favourite for relegation but a strong run of four victories from six has lifted them to the fringes of safety. A home win today might see them done.

Former Hammer, Gary O’Neil has knuckled down and performed a highly creditable job with his low budget squad. The Cherries are one of only two sides – the other is Forest – who have enjoyed less possession than West Ham this season. Their tendency is to get as many players behind the ball as possible – sound familiar – and rely on quick breakaways centred on the pace, movement and running of Dominic Solanke and Philip Billing.  

Solanke is a strange player who never delivered on his early potential at Chelsea and Liverpool. Although he scored a hatful of goals in the Championship, his Premier League total of eight from 70 games is less than impressive for a striker – did you know he also had one England cap?. However, his tally of five this season is as good as any West Ham player, and he has also contributed plenty in assists and as target man in counter-attacks. It is Billing who tops the scoring charts for Bournemouth (with seven) – goals which are typically scored from late runs into the box. Who will be picking him up? The other Cherry who has impressed in the games I have seen is Marcus Tavernier. If he plays – he went off injured at Tottenham last week – his runs along the flanks will require close attention from the West Ham full-backs.

Life and football is full of uncertainties. But one thing we can be certain of is that David Moyes will not be springing any selection surprises when the team sheets are handed in before kick-off. From the team that started against Gent, I see the only questions as: Aaron Cresswell or Emerson Palmieri, and Nayef Aguerd or Angelo Ogbonna.

That will mean starting berths again for two players – Tomas Soucek and Said Benrahma – who have looked well out of sorts for varying parts of the campaign. Moyes obsession with Soucek is legendary and hinges on the manager’s fixation with the aerial presence the Czech offers in defensive areas. If Soucek was still weighing in with goals at the other end it might be worth the trade-off. But he’s not and without goals his poor proficiency with the ball at his feet stands out even more. At this level a player shouldn’t he heading the ball because he doesn’t trust his own ability to bring it under control.

Benrhama has been consistently frustrating for much of his Hammer’s career and into this season. Granted he is joint top in Goals Scored and Goals + Assists but those stats do include four penalty kicks. His decision making is still haphazard, and, for me, he lacks the speed and strength to hack it at the top level. In the average game Benny looks incapable of pressing a grape, so it was something of a surprise last week when he outmuscled Ben White before crossing for what should have been West Ham’s winner against Arsenal.

It is baffling why Maxwell Cornet has yet to be given more minutes since his recovery from injury. Surely, he needs them to get match fit and his pace would be a welcome added dimension to attacks. Yet he has been mainly limited to five-minute cameos as a late Michail Antonio replacement since returning to the match day squad.

A West Ham win would be a second double of the season for the Hammers. It would also be a first ever double over the Cherries and the first win in Bournemouth since a Dimitri Payet inspired 3-1 victory in January 2016. A Hammer’s comeback inspired by one of Payet’s memorable free-kicks. How we could do with that now!

The game promises to be an intriguing clash of two sides inclined to play with a similar style – defend deep and counter-attack. It will be a very different challenge for West Ham than games against attack minded opponents like Arsenal and Gent. Despite some great goals scored recently – the Declan Rice and Antonio strikes on Thursday were top drawer – more penalty box chances need to be created from open play if the Goals For column is to be improved. The approach to the game must be adventurous enough for the Hammers to put pressure on the shaky home defence, with Jarrod Bowen and Lucas Paqueta the most likely to make it happen. But disciplined enough not to get caught out by Bournemouth counter attacks. A tight affair is forecast but one that must feature strongly on the winnable list. COYI!  

Dreaming Of A Second Successive Semi As West Ham Look To Slip Gently Past Belgian Challenge

The London Stadium mood was given a huge boost at the weekend. Was it a one-off or the sign of things to come? The first test for the new positivity is the opportunity for West Ham to ease past Gent and into the Europa Conference semi-finals.

At ten minutes past two on Sunday afternoon the worst prophecies of calamitous doom looked as if they would all be coming to fruition. This was going to be a rout against a rampant Arsenal side that would obliterate the Hammers relatively respectable goal difference advantage and leave them teetering despondently on the edge of relegation abyss.

Miraculously, something changed. Perhaps it involved a hint of complacency from the visitors but suddenly, West Ham were pressing higher up the pitch, the full-backs got to grips with the danger from the flanks, the composure of the Arsenal midfield was rattled, and space was intelligently exploited behind the high line of the Gunner’s defence.     

Anguish was replaced with anticipation and action and the type of spirited comeback where a deserved draw ends up feeling much more like victory. As satisfying as the performance was, it naturally raised questions as to where the spirit and intensity on show had been hiding all season. How had timid and cautious transformed into dynamic and confident? We had briefly seen an equivalent spirit and intensity when entertaining Tottenham in August but otherwise it has been distinctly absent. Is it a feature reserved solely for one-off London derby occasions? And will the penny finally drop that if you give the crowd something to shout about, then the London Stadium atmosphere can be as electric as you want?

The point earned was a welcome boost in the relegation struggle but has to be followed up in the remaining fixtures with equally positive displays. There is still plenty of opportunity to win and lose points and no chickens can yet be counted. It will be revealing to see how much of the new found adventure is taken to the game at Bournemouth when hostilities resume at the weekend.

In the meantime, there is the matter of a European Conference quarter final second leg with Gent to be played against the backdrop of increasing speculation on the future of David Moyes as West Ham manager. With so much online football ‘news’ tending towards fantasy it is impossible to sort the believable from what we would like to believe. But stories about gentlemen’s agreements and new managerial targets are starting to become commonplace, even in more mainstream outlets. The latest names thrown into the ring being Arne Slot of Feyenoord and Paulo Fonseca of Lille.

What any agreement between Moyes and the club to part ways in the summer would mean for the rest of this season is intriguing. Winning the Europa Conference would be a welcome addition to the threadbare Honours section of the manager’s CV. Is that sufficient motivation for the Scot to throw caution to the wind and risk the level of bravery that is often required to win knock-out competitions.

In theory, the Hammers should be red-hot favourites to reach the final. The draw has been kindly to the Hammers. Neither Gent, Anderlecht or AZ Alkmaar should prove insurmountable stumbling blocks on the march to Prague. But as we know from West Ham’s extensive back catalogue of banana skins, these matches frequently don’t go to plan. Nothing can be taken for granted!

Most observers agreed West Ham were fortunate to come away from the first leg on level pegging. An ultra cautious team selection surrendered all the initiative to the attack minded Belgian side who showed plenty of spirt but (fortunately) little real quality with the possession they were gifted. Surely the approach today will be nowhere near as negative and that all concerned will be going flat out to win the tie in normal time.

Angelo Ogbonna sits out the game through suspension while Gianluca Scamacca is now a long-term injury absentee. Nayef Aguerd should be available for selection after missing the weekend action and may well partner Kurt Zouma in the centre of defence. Surely tonight would be the ideal time to give Maxwell Cornet a starting position in what I’m hoping will be as strong a team as possible: Areola, Kehrer, Zouma, Aguerd, Emerson, Rice, Downes, Paqueta, Bowen, Ings, Cornet

There is a worry that too much is being read into the performance against Arsenal. It has certainly lifted the mood for now, but we need to see more evidence before we can call it a turnaround. A good start would be the Hammers demonstrating their intent with an efficient and positive victory to seal next month’s semi-final berth. COYI!

Can West Ham Survive Arteta’s Spanish Inquisition At The London Stadium

Nobody expects a West Ham victory in today’s big London derby. The Gunners have no fear, and the Hammers lack the element of surprise. Will it be an afternoon of torture to endure in Stratford?

It’s exciting isn’t it that West Ham are one of the teams able to have a say in the destination of the Premier League title. As they prepare to face Arsenal this afternoon and travel to Manchester City in a couple of weeks’ time, both opponents will have an eye on the games as a great opportunity to boost their respective goal differences.

Combining David Moyes miserable managerial record against ‘big six’ sides with the Hammers long-term tendency for lame surrender in such games injects a double dose of pessimism into today’s encounter. West Ham’s Premier League record against Arsenal is especially woeful. Just eight wins out of 53 attempts. Since a purple patch of three consecutive wins in 2006 and 2007, there have been just two victories to celebrate from a 34-match run.     

According to reliable sources, the Oracle Cloud algorithm for win probability is struggling to cope with small enough numbers for calculating the chances of a West Ham win. Whereas the Arsenal win probability can be seen from space, the Hammer’s probability is invisible to the naked eye.


Apart from avoiding defeat, there was little solace to be taken from the performance against Gent on Thursday evening. The Europa Conference campaign has been an isolated glimmer of hope for supporters this season. But as the quality of opponent has improved, performances are beginning to align with those in the league – never mind the performance, it’s all about the result! Being given the run around by a spirited but limited Gent side was unexpectedly dispiriting.

There was a not-so-subtle dig by Moyes after the match about the importance of supporters getting behind the team. Of course, a rocking stadium is everyone’s dream scenario, but there has to be something to get people off their seats – to keep the spirit of the crowd lifted. The atmosphere at kick-off is consistently positive but is sure to lose its sparkle if not reinforced by action on the pitch. Starting on the back foot, defending deep with ten players behind the ball, and failing to get forward in numbers is not a recipe for raising the passions. No surprise that West Ham have still yet to score in the first 15 minutes of any of this season’s Premier League games. It is easy to point to examples at clubs, such as Leeds, and praise the fanaticism of the support but they are cheering a team who are always willing to give it a go, despite whatever other limitations they may have.

Watching West Ham sitting back in passive resignation is about as stimulating and inspiring as settling down for an evening watching the Test Card on TV. While a relegation battle might suggest a reappraisal of tactics, West Ham are relying on the same approach that got them into a mess to get them back out of it. There is not just the one option of grinding out results and hanging on to a lead in every game. Sometimes the initiative must be seized. To play the game on our own terms that askes questions of opponents rather than sitting back and hoping for the best. Learn a little from the style we have seen from the likes of Brighton, Villa, Fulham and Brentford.

I don’t really care much for Mikel Arteta but have to admit that his team play superb fast attacking football and are a joy to watch. For some strange reason, I also have an irrational dislike of Aaron Ramsdale even if he is rapidly becoming England’s number one keeper. The Gunners have tremendous flexibility in the way they approach games with the ability to adjust formation and structure to suit changing circumstances throughout the game – a far cry form our own pre-formed rigidity. They can attack at pace through the middle as well as down the flanks, get plenty of support into the box and never leave their attacking arrowhead isolated to chase lost causes. Saka and Martinelli will give our full-backs a torrid time this afternoon and Jesus is always a handful pulling central defenders out of position. The player who makes everything tick for me though is Ødegaard. He is the dream creative midfield player – great decision maker who rarely wastes a ball. How long since West Ham have had a competent player in that role?

Arteta will now be feeling the hot, garlicky breath of Pep Guardiola on the back of his neck and it will be interesting to see how his team copes with that. A touch of the jitters might be our best hope for this afternoon. I do think that Manchester City will eventually pip them at the post but only based on their prior experience of handling the pressure of the run-in.

What I don’t find as exciting as the tile race is being entangled in the relegation battle. Yesterday’s results were generally favourable for West Ham although Crystal Palace, Wolves and maybe Bournemouth look to have eased themselves clear of danger. It’s now more a six-club race with Southampton starting to lose touch with each passing week. A disastrous result for Everton, a not unexpected defeat for Leicester, and Forest and Leeds yet to play. Could have been far worse in what all the omens suggest will be a blank weekend for the Hammers.

So, what might we expect from Moyes this week? As ever, his decision making will be underpinned by stereotypical caution. Perhaps, he will view a one or two goal defeat as a good enough result in that it preserves the goal difference advantage. My guess is that the starting XI will be the same as at Fulham except for Lucas Paqueta replacing Pablo Fornals. Nothing more adventurous or revolutionary than that. Plan for draw, prepare for defeat. If we are to pick up a point it will as likely be due to a sub-par performance from an anxious opponent than to our own enterprise. The type of game to watch through your fingers. COYI!