The London Stadium Will Be Rocking To A Top Six Finish And West Ham’s Euro Vision

Should the Hammers avoid nul points in the final game of the season, it will be Congratulations for a top six finish and ensuring the owners are Making Their Mind Up on improving the squad for Europe.

The final game of the season, the fans are back, and West Ham are on course to secure a place in the top six of the Premier League, along with entry into next season’s Europa League. What could be better?

European football in some form is already guaranteed at the London Stadium after the last round of games, with 5th and 6th taking part in the Europa League and 7th entering the new Europa Conference. That allocation could change if Chelsea finish fifth but win the Champion’s League, although would not impact the Hammers. I it that would mean that both 6th and 7th enter the Europa League. But I am no expert on arcane UEFA rules.

The broadcasters will be thankful that there are, at least, some matters to resolve on the final weekend. Chelsea, Liverpool and Leicester will be fighting it out for the two remaining in the top four – I’m convinced it could have included us but for Declan’s injury on England duty. Liverpool now look certainties to salvage a place as Chelsea face a difficult trip to Villa Park. If Chelsea slip up and Leicester win, as we hope, against Spurs then the Foxes will sneak back up in the standings.

West Ham will confirm sixth place by securing at least a point against Southampton or by Tottenham failing to win at Leicester. There is one further mathematical scenario that would involve Everton overturning the eight goal deficit in goal difference in the event of a West Ham defeat, but as they visit the Etihad it hugely unlikely.

The midweek game at West Bromwich was a strange affair. It was unanimously accepted that we had not gien a good account of ourselves, while at the same time scoring three goals, missing a penalty, hitting the wordwork (twice if I can double count), and putting in twenty-one shots (nine on target). In the end the score-line made it look more comfortable than it was, but what a welcome victory – particularly in the light of the Villa win in N17. Can’t say I have ever really been convinced by the notion of Declan Rice as our penalty taker.

In an otherwise fraught year, the Hammer’s exploits have been a stand-out highlight. It is difficult to recall ever seeing a better team-spirit at the club. The manager, coaches and players have all exceeded expectations, overcoming squad limitations through hard-work, determination, effort, and collective desire. As well as that team ethic, there have also been outstanding individual contributions, making selection of Hammer of The Year arguably the most difficult decision since 1986. For me, it is impossible to split Rice from the two Czechs, Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal.

Key to tomorrow’s game will be how the Hammers handle the occasion. With the fans back in there should be a party atmosphere, but there is still a job to be done. We will want to claim top six through our own endeavours, not the failure of others.

How Southampton approach the game will also play a part. It has been a Jekyll and Hyde season for the Saints as early season optimism gave way to a dreadful run of form. The ship has now been steadied, but they have little to motivate them. Hasenhüttl adopts an unusual narrow formation but they are not without goal threat. Danny Ings is always on the go and will be keen to exploit the type of gaps the Hammers gifted when conceding against Everton and Brighton. And there are few better than Ward-Prowse in taking advantage of the needless free-kicks given away just outside the box.

It will be the usual selection toss-ups for David Moyes but with the addition of the goalkeeper injury situation. If I can see how intimidated Darren Randolph gets by high balls into the box, then so can opposition coaches. He is decent enough as a shot stopper (as we saw at the Hawthorns on Wednesday) but my fingers are well and truly crossed that Lukasz Fabianski can return.

I feel reasonably confident that we will win today. Another 3-1 perhaps! It will round off a tremendous season and we can get on to the serious business of transfer speculation. It should prove a fascinating insight into a more professional direction of the club, the promise of a new approach to recruiting younger players and what investment is forthcoming.

The squad badly needs to be re-balanced. Those not suited to the current work ethic must be shipped out, and better options and/ or cover for key positions brought in. Four or five new players at least. The immediate future of Rice is also of great significance.   

It is fitting that this group of players will likely record West Ham’s best ever season in the Premier League, at least as far as points and wins are concerned. They have done us proud. My thanks to them all. COYI!

Running In Please Pass! More Revs Required To Put The Brakes On Hammers Slide Down The Table

It may be all about perceptions, but a late season slump may take the shine off an admirable Hammer’s season. Can the Irons pull European qualification out of the fire?

Does anyone remember the ‘Running In Please Pass’ signs sometimes seen in the rear window of cars with a new or rebuilt engine installed? The driver was obliged to stick below 4000 revs for the first 1000 miles or get it run-in. He (or she) could only watch in frustration as the other vehicles raced by. The recent West Ham run-in experience has brought those stickers to mind.

Securing a top four spot and breaking the big club dominance of the Premier League was always going to be a tall order, just as it might ultimately be for Leicester on the final day. Yet, there is a feeling that, if it was ever going to happen for the Hammers, this was the year of opportunity. That the dream was kept alive so long is no small credit to the manager and players.

The first season run-in calculators started to appear with around eight games to go. At the time the Hammers had 52 points from 30 games – a creditable average of 1.73 points per game. There were tough games to come against Leicester and Chelsea but apart from that the remaining games looked winnable. It started with great promise and victory at Leicester saw us up to fourth, just a point behind the Foxes. Then momentum suddenly stalled as defeats to Newcastle and Everton, coinciding with critical injuries, took a heavy toll. A return of just seven points from six games (1.1 points per game) had left us in the slow lane and we could only watch as Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham all roared past. Was this a repeat of the disappointing end to the 2015/16 season?

Football has much to do with perceptions. Consider those two rip-roaring 3-3 draws against Tottenham and Arsenal. After the first, joy and elation to celebrate a miraculous comeback; after the second, despondency and anger at throwing away a three goal lead. Similarly, a late end of season charge taking us from tenth to seventh would be viewed very positively, while slipping from fourth to seventh is seen as a huge disappointment – even though the outcome is the same.

Still, all is not lost. Two attractive targets remain available to the Hammers. To secure a claim for some form of European adventure next season, and the chance to finish above a Tottenham side reeling from the intended departure of Citizen Kane (his probable destination). Winning the final two games, starting away at The Hawthorns tonight, must be the catalyst for hitting those targets.

You wait half a season for one Albion and then two of them come along together. A largely forgettable draw against the Brighton and Hove variety at the weekend saw the Hammers salvage a priceless point with a first ever West Ham goal for Said Benrahma. Perhaps he can now feel a little less anxious about the need to get on the scoresheet. As in the Everton game it was a very poor (and similar) goal to concede – an opposition forward allowed to simply run past a static defence. Is that too high a line to play with little pace in the centre of defence?

In attack, the Hammers once again struggled to sparkle in a game where space for forward runners was denied by the opponents. Setting up as a fast counter-attacking side is all well and good (and it has reaped tremendous dividends on plenty of occasions this season) but there are times when a different approach is needed. One that shows greater intensity but also the variety and guile to get behind and break open defences. In the game against Everton and Brighton there was plenty of probing but most of it was so predictable and short on fervour. Energy, passion, intensity and bravery need to be on show tonight.

Recent woes have highlighted the downside of not having a natural goalscorer in the squad. Sharing the goals around is great but sometimes you need to rely on the guy who is almost guaranteed to put away the one chance that falls his way. I believe West Ham are the only top half team where no-one has yet to reach double figures in the scoring charts.

It is impossible to know how West Brom will approach tonight’s game. There are always two schools of thought on already relegated sides. Either they will play with freedom now the pressure is off, or they will already be mentally basking on a green list beach somewhere. They certainly played with a spirited determination against Liverpool at the weekend and I don’t think we should rely on last-minute goal drama such as a Lukasz Fabianski overhead scissors kick for salvation. A half-hearted resistance from the Baggies, like that shown by Norwich at the end of last season, would be perfect. Albion did after all start out in life as the West Bromwich Strollers. Does Big Sam (I’ve Only Ever Been Relagated Once) Allardyce owe us any favours?

Team-wise we are left with only the usual matchday debates between Craig Dawson or Issa Diop and Said Benrahma or Jarrod Bowen. Injuries aside, everything else usually stays the same. If we should be looking for late goal-scoring heroics then wouldn’t Mipo Odubeko be a better hat to throw in the ring than Andriy Yarmolenko? Surely, he couldn’t perform any worse.

Despite the apparent shortcomings in penetrating massed defences, West Ham have a decent record against bottom half sides this season. The thing about a massed defence is that you only have to breach it once and the floodgates are wide open for good. This is my hope for tonight. A headed set-piece goal followed by the rampant Hammers running riot with a 4-1 win. COYI!

Can The Hammers Stroll Past A Brighton B-Side Beside The Seaside? We’ll Have To See!

Tiddely-om-pom-pom! A depleted Brighton side provide the opposition as West Ham look for a seaside shuffle into European qualification.

There may well be special circumstances this season, but it seems very odd (and wrong) to be playing a league game immediately after the FA Cup Final has finished. For so long, Cup Final day was where everything stopped and the outside world went eerily quiet. Weekend chores were set aside early so we could settle down in front of the Grandstand with some tins of Ind Coope Long Life beer and a party pack of Hula Hoops for company.

West Ham players will barely have time to finish tweeting their Cup Final congratulations before kicking-off at the Amex Stadium in a bid to rescue European hopes . Although the top four dream would appear to have slipped tantalisingly out of reach there is still much to play for – a place in the top six and finishing above Tottenham for starters.

It is always tempting to want to blame someone else for your own shortcomings, but it in the end it was three defeats in the last four games that burst the West Ham bubble. That’s not to say a clandestine conspiracy by the sordid six to ensure top four dominance for themselves is out of the question. We still await news of their punishment for breaching Premier League rules!

The thinness of the Hammers squad was ultimately the undoing. Was it ever likely to be strong enough to mount a sustained challenge with the injuries and suspensions? Even in in a normal season, let alone one as compressed as this one has been. A late rush of injuries to key players just became impossible to manage.

For me, the absence of Rice has been the most crucial, particularly in the defeats to Newcastle and Everton. Others may argue that not bringing in a striker in January was the key factor but I do understand the manager’s stance on that one, unless an overseas loan could have been arranged. A permanent deal from the bargain bucket (think Jordan Hugill) would only have made a sizeable hole in the summer’s budget, and for questionable benefit.

The parlous state of the squad is a direct consequence of woeful oversight at Board level for many years. Paying over the odds for unsuitable vanity signings, with lengthy and inflated contracts, and with little or no re-sale value has proved a disastrous strategy. That when there were inspired signings (Payet and Arnautovic), insult was added to injury by allowing them both to leave for well below market value.  At the same time, the academy has been experiencing years of famine.  Aside from the good fortune of picking up Rice when he was rejected by Chelsea, the last academy graduate of any note was James Tomkins.

The game with Everton proved exceptionally frustrating. The Toffees are a notorious bogey-side for the Hammers and once they had been gifted an early goal it was always going to be a struggle to find a way back. It was a typical Everton away performance and the Hammers, not for the first time, lacked the individual flair to unlock a massed and well marshalled defence. The two clear opportunities that did arise, for Said Benrahma and Vladimir Coufal, were left unconverted.

The Everton goal highlighted the weakness still present in centre of the Hammer’s defence. For all his strength, bravery and aerial prowess, Craig Dawson has clear limitations on the ground that explain why he was plying his trade at Watford. Most certainly a decent squad player but not a mainstay for a team hoping to be regular European contenders. With an ageing Angelo Ogbonna, central defence is one more area requiring reinforcements in the summer – along with keeper, left back, striker and, indeed, others.

End of season games can be wildly unpredictable as more teams start to take their foot off the pedal, peruse the travel green list and stock up on Ambre Solaire. With Brighton having secured Premier League safety in the week it will be interesting to see how they react. More so in light of the rush of blood that saw two red cards in their fixture at Wolves last week, leaving them short of a captain and two leading goal scorers.

Brighton under Graham Potter are something of an enigma. It is quite unusual for a club on such a limited budget to strive for attractive possession football. I have been suitably impressed at how comfortable even their lanky defenders are on the ball. It is a lack of goals that has typically let them down. Bissouma and Trossard are very fine players as was Lamptey in the early part of the season before his injury. In seven matches since returning to the top-flight the Seagulls have yet to lose to the Hammers, and have scored every time.

The major hope for today is that it will mark the return of Rice to the midfield. Not only for his own undoubted talent, drive and contribution but also because it releases Tomas Soucek to get further forward. Seeing Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell on the team sheet would also be an enormous bonus.  Apart from those injury concerns the outstanding call is between Jarrod Bowen and Benrahma for a starting berth. I think it goes to Bowen

As usual the bench will be very light on game changing options. When Andriy Yarmolenko and Ryan Fredericks are your big hopes, it does not auger well.

A big game for the Hammers, less so for the depleted Seagulls. Similar circumstances, perhaps, to when we faced a depleted Swansea at the end of the 2015/6 season and lost 4-1 at home, eventually costing the chance of a top six spot. Hopefully, we are made of sterner tough this time around. If Brighton play their normal possession game it should allow space for the West Ham runners to exploit on the counter attack. In theory, it should make them an ideal opponent. My prediction is that greater desire can break the Brighton duck with a comfortable 3-1 victory.

West Ham’s Top Four Odyssey: Nobody told me there’d be days like these!

The clouds have lifted, the sky is blue and West Ham’s road to a spectacular top four finish is looking clear – unless, that is, they get stuck against the Toffees

Successive defeats and an injury ravaged squad had seen menacing dark clouds rolling in on West Ham’s top four aspirations.  But just as it gets darkest before dawn, those negative thoughts were blown away by a superb, barnstorming victory at Turf Moor on Monday night.

The surprise return of a turbo-charged Michail Antonio, the awakening of Said Benrahma and the re-birth of Manuel Lanzini united to give notice that while many in the media may “have thought it was all over”, it isn’t now! The fat lady can put her feet up for a few more weeks, yet.

More good news was to come last night when this season’s West Ham nemesis, Newcastle United, gratefully returned part of the favour by beating Leicester, 4-2. Both Leicester and Brendan Rodgers have previous with letting good positions slip and their one-time grip on third place is now looking decidedly precarious. Picking up points against Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs is no certainty.

Games towards the latter stages of the season are notoriously difficult to call, as an increasing number of teams are left with little left to play for. The champions, runner-up and relegation places are to all intents and purposes sealed leaving only Champion’s League qualification and the crumbs of the Europa League up for grabs.

The race for those remaining two top four places is realistically down to Leicester, Chelsea, West Ham and Liverpool. Tottenham are sure to be in denial until the last mouthful of lasagne confirms otherwise but it is beyond them to outpoint three of the above. Not to say that the north Londoners couldn’t finish above West Ham, should the Hammers fall away badly, but best not to think about that.

On paper, West Ham and Liverpool have the easiest of the run-ins. Chelsea are difficult to beat but would do exceptionally well not to drop points from games against Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester and Villa. The re-scheduled Manchester United – Liverpool game could well prove a pivotal moment in a congested programme for the Red Devils. It’s a shame that second place already looks nailed on for them. Hopefully, local rivalry will not allow them to take it easy.

All of this speculative daydreaming would become inconsequential, of course, if the Hammers are unable to keep their end up. As much as we might fancy the run-in, no game is going to be a straightforward. As the tension mounts there will be psychological obstacles as well as the opposition to overcome. With less to lose in terms of expectation, and being considered as rank outsiders, it may hopefully take some of the pressure off. It will still be a huge test of character. Although the ideal would be to win each of the four remaining games, maybe we can get away with one draw.

The first of those four games is arguably the toughest, when Everton visit the London Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Toffees started the season at a blistering pace but have been largely flat and inconsistent ever since. They look like a collection of potentially fine players without any cohesion or spirit. As with Pellegrini’s Hammers, Everton have spent large on players who are big on reputation, but light on attitude or application. The times that I have watched them recently, they have been predictable and short on ideas. Despite this, they are still in with a shout of the Europa League and cannot be dismissed.

As ever, David Moyes has been coy about the state of the injury situation. Not aware of any new knocks being picked up, the key questions pertain to the return to action, or otherwise, of Declan Rice and Angelo Ogbonna. It would be a massive boost to have them both available. The success of Lanzini in defensive midfield on Monday may allow Moyes to exercise greater caution in the timing of Rice’s return.

The dilemma for Moyes is that an opposition midfield of Doucoure, Allan and Gomes will not give the Hammers the same room that they exploited so well at Burnley. Both Newcastle and Chelsea stifled West Ham by denying space for their runners. Although, the Hammer’s attacking dynamic is very different with Antonio back in the picture, Moyes must find the right balance between getting players forward and not being overrun in midfield.

Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined West Ham being in the mix for the Champion’s League with just four games of the season to go. It’s usually a tense relegation battle or midtable obscurity by now. I’m not quite sure what to expect or how to handle the raised expectations. It seems just as tense as when we are at the bottom and the same hypothetical ‘if-only’ thoughts frequently flash through my  mind – if-only we hadn’t thrown away a three goal lead against Arsenal.

All we can ask is that manager and team give it a real go. No-one can complain if they fall short. It’s been a magnificent effort.

My gut feel is a 2-0 home win, but I will wait to see what the psychic octopus predicts before committing.

Hammers Hoping To Upset The Clarets And Stop The Fat Lady From Singing Too Early

Injuries remain a concern but Moyes playing with a full deck can keep the European dream alive until the final day of the season

In an unusual turn of events, the weekend’s Super Sunday was thrown into disarray by a pitch invasion at an empty Old Trafford. Unexpected as it was, it is perhaps not surprising that something like this has happened. Authorities do not like it when the hoi polloi take direct action, but if complaints are persistently ignored, then frustrations will eventually boil over. Incidents of violence should not be condoned, but that is not the main story here. The continued hijacking of the national game by mega business interests, sovereign states and private equity funds cannot proceed unchecked. The aborted ESL plans have brought the issue to a head and must be addressed before the next inevitable power grab raises its ugly head.

What the fall-out from the postponement will be can only be speculated on. A deathly silence remains on the sanctions yet to be applied to the sordid six for their original breach of Premier League rules. Given that rulings generally work against the interest of West Ham, I expect Liverpool to be awarded last night’s match as a walkover with Manchester United docked just enough points not to threaten their top four status.

It was interesting to hear David Moyes raise the issue of the Hammer’s treatment by referees and the league in the wake of the Fabian Balbuena red card debacle. Having had five of the last straight red cards overturned should be raising alarm bells, even at the FA. It’s a while since I studied probability, but if we assume the likelihood of a card being overturned is 10%, then five out of eight equates to a seven in a million chance of being random. Perhaps I have worked that out wrong, but said with enough confidence, people will believe it!

I was quite surprised at the number of pundits coming out in support of the referee’s decision. Too many basing their opinion incorrectly, it seems, on selected slow-motion replays of the point of contact, just as the ref had done. Do all the ex-players not good enough to coach now take up punditry? Having a controversial opinion online has no downsides, it appears.

Each time the authorities introduce rule change to address perceived problems in the game they manage to make things worse, or more inconsistent. Football is the world’s most popular sport due to its simplicity. Having different rules to punish offences depending where on the pitch they occur defies that simplicity. Cynical fouls and handballs are perfect examples.

Christensen was allowed to escape a yellow card for an early cynical foul on Tomas Soucek in the game last week because it was in the Hammer’s half. Leaving him free to repeat the crime on Jesse Lingard later on to take his ‘one for the team’. It is not selfless sacrifice it is cheating.

Elsewhere, Azpilicueta was deemed not to have handled the ball because he was as a defender, whereas Callum Wilson (as an attacker) was earlier penalised for a similar accidental play when scoring the first equaliser for Newcastle against Liverpool?  Cynical (or tactical) fouls like diving and acting are not part of the game and should be dealt with severely and consistently, wherever they occur.

As for the 3D line measurements coming out for VAR offside decisions, why not just simplify matters, until a complete review of the offside law is completed, by taking account of feet only and ignoring other body parts?

The one late Sunday game that did go ahead yesterday saw West Ham drop down to sixth and swapping places with Tottenham. A little more pressure added to the Hammers as they prepare for their visit to Burnley.

Injuries will play a major part in the concluding weeks of the Hammer’s excellent season. The current situation is far from clear with different reports suggesting Declan Rice, Aaron Cresswell, Arther Masuaku and Michail Antonio are either all available or all still knee deep in the treatment room. With Moyes preferring to play his cards close to chest, we have no way of knowing whether he has a full deck (or Dec) or not. Having Rice and Cresswell back at Burnley would be a huge bonus. Without having any inside knowledge I am doubtful that we will see much of Antonio and Masuaku for the rest of the season.

The captain (and by that, I mean Rice) in particular, has been sorely missed in the past two games for his drive, energy and leadership in every area of the pitch. His influence cannot be overestimated. In his absence, Mark Noble has tried hard but nowadays plays so deep it would be no surprise to see him run out with a miner’s lamp and a canary. Ironically, there are rumours that Noble is also on the injured list. Both missing would be perplexing.

Getting the Balbuena red card rescinded was something of an academic exercise in that we are unlikely to see any more of him in a West Ham shirt. The damage of that poor decision was done on the day, not by any subsequent suspension. Craig Dawson will be back tonight (from his own suspension) and is the ideal man to stand-up to the physical challenge of Chris Wood, as he did in the home fixture last January. All other changes will depend on what the injury situation finally reveals.

Burnley produced the stand-out result from last weekend when they beat Wolves 4-0, effectively making themselves safe from lingering relegation worries.  As well as Burnley played, Wolves were truly dreadful – one of the most incompetent performances I have seen for some time. The Clarets have some useful players and more importantly a tremendous team spirit. Pope is a top class keeper, Wood and McNeil are always dangerous, Vydra is starting to look a handful and the Tarkowski/ Mee partnership doesn’t give too much away in the air. Certainly no pushovers wo were never realistic relegation candidates!

Only desperate TV executives and commentators continue to hang on to the belief that the Premier League title and the relegation places are yet to be decided. Outcomes are usually obvious well before mathematical certainty confirms them to be so. Those wanting final day drama may be banking on a West Ham resurgence to ensure there is at least one issue in the balance. It will be a damp squib Sleepy Sunday if they are left cutting from match to match to check on the race for seventh.

Burnley are one of the few teams in the Premier League who rank below West Ham in terms of possession, touches and passes completed this season. With both teams averaging around 41% possession, where the ball go for the rest of the game?

It is fascinating how few touches players actually have during a game. According to the stats, West Ham players have totalled just under 17,500 touches in 33 games this season: the equivalent of 48 touches per player per game. Or around £1,000 per touch per week.

With a full complement available, this is a game that West Ham can win. Jarrod Bowen and Lingard carry enough pace, movement, and threat to compensate for the loss of Antonio, but only if the midfield foundation is solid. Without Rice the midfield platform looks shaky and Bowen gets drawn too much into defensive duties – leading the line and chasing back very soon begin to take its toll.

As ever, width on the left hand side is a problem. Ryan Fredericks and/ or Ben Johnson filling in again on their wrong foot is just not good enough in this league. Better contributions are also needed from Pablo Fornals (ineffective in the last two games) and Said Benrahma (ineffective for most of the season). It is a game that has to be won to keep the dreams alive. The TV guys may also need a West Ham win to generate season ending excitement. Otherwise, the fat lady may just as well sing her song and toddle off home for an early bath.

West Ham Bubbling Under While Blue Is The Colour Of Deceit, Greed And Duplicity

After the ESL furore, West Ham face off with disgraced Chelsea for the title of most super team in London

In the blink of an eye the world’s shortest coup came crashing down in a blaze of ridicule. The brave new world of the European Super League turned out to be an emperor with no clothes. Whoever imagined this as a popular reform that would be good for all football has some serious delusions. That the rest of the football world would be convinced by a plan dreamt up by a group looking to save themselves (at the expense of others) from a financial mess of their own making. It beggars belief. The unanswered question, though, is what will happen next?

Personally, I am less concerned about the severity of the sanctions served on the shameless six Premier League clubs than I am about the steps required to prevent something similar happening again. Having said that, any team breaking the League’s rules should not be allowed to escape scot-free. Perhaps whatever sanctions are arrived at, they should be doubled for Tottenham and Arsenal for the sheer temerity of considering themselves as elite clubs.

Competitive domestic football must remain the cornerstone of our game. Anything else is icing on the cake. But whatever competition is imagined, it must be based on sporting merit if integrity is to be retained. Independent oversight/ governance and fan participation in any decisions on structural changes should be mandatory if we are to the counter self-interest of self-appointed elites.

It was no surprise that this weekend’s visitors, Chelsea, together with Manchester City were the first to break ranks once they started to feel the heat. Both are the play-things of billionaire owners and, as such, have no need to make a grab for a greater share of the proceeds – just to feed their habit of paying nonsensical transfer fees and wages to players and agents. Their involvement may have been a surprise (fear of missing out), but it makes them no less culpable. Like any crime, this was a joint enterprise, many months in the making.

With all that has been going on, one might easily forget that there is a season still going on. Or that tomorrow will see what might be billed as the final Champion’s League qualification spot ‘play-off’. Two teams separated merely by goal difference.

It would have been nice going into the game with Chelsea a few points to the good. But the Hammers blew that chance with a self-inflicted horror show at St James’ Park last Saturday. A game where we not only lost soft goals and priceless points, but also the services of Craig Dawson, for a brace of reckless challenges. To have lost twice this season to a poor Newcastle side takes some understanding.

With Dawson’s suspension, the ongoing absence of Declan Rice and Michail Antonio and the probable unavailability of Aaron Cresswell and Arthur Masuaku, it leaves David Moyes painfully short of options. If Cresswell is out then Fabian Balbuena will deputise for Dawson in the back three with Ben Johnson slotting in again at left wing back – not his best or most natural position by a long way.

I know Masuaku is something of a marmite player with West Ham fans but I do think we miss him (or a player like him) as he provides an available out-ball and a link between defence and attack, particularly when playing three at the back and sacrificing a creative spot in midfield. Every little helps for a side far too prone to giving the ball away cheaply. There has been some talk in the media of Said Benrahma filling that role but I am doubtful that it will have got Moyes attention. Benrahma is looking more marginalised as the weeks go by. The less game time he gets, the more he tries too hard to impress during his short cameos.

In the madly optimistic nature of the football supporter, I had been hoping for a miracle recovery by Rice in time for this weekend. His presence was sorely missed in a compressed midfield at Newcastle. Mark Noble will always give his all, but when he is not slowing play down or dropping too deep, the game is passing him by.

For the visitors, it has been a season for two halves as the naivety of Fat Frank gave way to the pragmatism of new media darling, Thomas Tuchel. On paper, the Blues are among the most talented squads in the division, but as a team they lack a spark to truly impress, even if they have become very difficult to beat. Expect plenty of comings and goings in west London during the close season. Lampard did have initial success by fielding a number of Chelsea youngsters but apart from Mount, they have flattered to deceive. It would be no surprise to see the likes of Abraham and Hudson-Odoi end up as perpetual loanees, following Loftus-Cheek and Barkley. Apart from Kovacic the Blues have a full squad to chose from tomorrow.

It feels like it should be a make-or-break game for the Hammers Champion’s League aspirations even though plenty can still happen in the remaining games. Leicester’s win last night has given them breathing space and a firm hold on third place, now that their injury problems are largely behind them. In the circumstances I would be happy with a draw against Chelsea, but I am also conscious of the dangers of Moyes playing for a draw. West Ham need to be set-up to retain the ball far better and be prepared to show ambition wherever possible – an approach that has rarely been seen against the top teams.

There is no need to boss possession but equally there is no need to surrender it needlessly. The worry is how the team can collectively keep control of the game with so many key players missing. Maybe a first home scoreless draw of the season is on the cards? COYI!

West Ham Season Opener Revisited: You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next

This week’s preview is brought to you by HammerCalm, the official stress relief medicine of West Ham United. Take one tablet after the third Hammer’s goal and the proven slow-release formulation promotes a sense of calm and relaxation until the seventh minute of added time.

Do you remember, the 12th night of September? West Ham had just crumbled to defeat in the opening game of the 2020/21 season to Newcastle United. The omens were grim. A dispirited Hammers, lacking pace and positional sense, reeling from the controversial sale of Grady Diagana, had been easily beaten 2-0 by a visiting side considered to have recruited wisely during the transfer window. The obvious flaws in the West Ham defence had not been addressed and a season of relegation struggle and disharmony was widely predicted.

Who but a fool would have guessed, back then, that when we reached the final seven matches of the season, West Ham would be challenging for a Champion’s League place with Newcastle on the periphery of the relegation scramble?

West Ham’s transformation has been astonishing, regardless of what happens in the remaining games. The defence was eventually patched by the addition of the inspirational Vladimir Coufal and the resolute Craig Dawson, but it was done at very little expense. Where biggish money was pledged, for the creative probings of Said Benrahma, this has yet to pay the expected dividends. Otherwise the team is largely unchanged – in personnel, if not in performances. There have been many notable contributions to the team’s success (Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Angelo Ogbonna to name but a few) but it has been the arrival of Jesse Lingard that has sparked the final assault on the top four.

At the end of January when victory at Crystal Palace first saw West Ham break into the top four, the pundits warned that a difficult run-in would bring them back down to earth. Most of those tough fixtures (at least on paper) are now behind us and still we sit with an opportunity to end the weekend not only in the top four, but in third place. No doubt there is still time for the wheels to fall off, but what delight to be in with a shout.

After last night’s draw between Everton and Tottenham, the race for the remaining two Champion’s League’s places is realistically down to Leicester, West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool. The assorted bookmakers, sporting indices and pundits continue (not unsurprisingly) to see the Hammers as firm outsiders. I’m sure many West Ham fans feel the same wrestling between their privately held hopes and their publicly voiced expectations. At least the top four race provides an element of intrigue to a season that is in danger of fizzling out long before the end.

Next up in the West Ham run of weekly cup finals is a visit to St James’ Park for the return fixture with Newcastle. The Hammers achieved a league double over the Geordies in the 2018/19 season but, so far, have yet to taste victory over a Steve Bruce Toon, including a Premier League Asia Trophy third place play-off in Shanghai. The most recent visit ended in a 2-2 stalemate in July 2020 with West Ham twice surrendering the lead.

Newcastle supporters will be disappointed by their season season and, although they are not mathematically clear of relegation, they opened up a useful gap over the bottom three with a comeback win at Burnley last weekend. The game itself was a largely mediocre affair but the return from injury of Wilson and Saint-Maximin has provided a major and timely boost. The introduction of Saint-Maximin effectively changed the game and with Wilson always enjoying his games against the Hammers, the home side will be cautiously optimistic.

David Moyes has played his injury cards close to his chest making it impossible to predict the available permutations in the away side’s starting eleven. We know that Rice and Michail Antonio will again be missing but reliable news on Ogbonna’s fitness, and the extent of Aaron Cresswell’s and Mark Noble’s injuries are difficult to ascertain. My instinct is that Moyes will only be making enforced changes from the team that started last week. The most difficult gap to fill would be the absence of Noble. At least there are options elsewhere but unless the manager suddenly decides to put faith in Conor Coventry there is no backup as a partner to Soucek in the defensive midfield anchor.

A further unexpected feature of the West Ham season has been an unusually low profile from the boardroom. Not like them to be bashful in the light of unforeseen success on the pitch. Should the exceptional run continue to the end of the season then you can be sure they will be milking it for all it is worth – as the planned commemorative issue of the Sunday Sport recently leaked by a club insider reveals. No doubt they would see a place in the Champion’s League as reward for their efforts, not something achieved despite them.

It is going to be another tough match at St James Park today. Newcastle have lost just one of their last six and will have momentum from last week’s success. Hopefully, the West Ham mentality really is to take each game one at a time but it would be understandable if the pressure of expectation starts to creep in. A win and third place would be amazing and set things up nicely for the clash with Chelsea next weekend. If we do get ahead I’m looking for a better stab at game management than we have seen in recent weeks. The nerves can’t take much more of trying to throw away three goal leads – and there are no fingernails left to chew. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

West Ham Jockey For Top Four Place With Leicester Pivot

A crunch encounter in the race for the top four. But will the handicap of missing players impede the Hammers as they approach the final turn?

Following the entertaining win at Wolverhampton on Monday evening, David Moyes briefly referred to entering the final furlong of the Premier League race, then quickly corrected himself. With 20% of the season still to play, he was right to do so. If the league was a three-mile chase, then there would still be five furlongs to run – complete with a couple of tricky to overcome, including this weekend’s crunch encounter with Leicester City.

In a historical context, six pointers between these two clubs, this late in the season, would be taking place at the other end of the table. Not looking to gate-crash the elite’s Champion’s League qualification party.  A Hammers win and it drags the Foxes back into the field of five clubs chasing two places. Whereas a Leicester success puts them firmly in the driving seat for third place.

As things stand, the visitors are four points better off. Both have experienced eight defeats but Leicester have recorded two more wins (while the Hammers were drawing). The game sees the league’s second-best home record come up against the league’s second-best away record. Something’s gotta give!

Moyes was also correct in saying that West Ham sitting fourth in the table is not a fluke. They are there on merit and thanks largely to an amazing resilience that has been injected into the team. There have been many exceptional individual performances, but the major strength in the side is collective discipline, organisation, and teamwork. It is a rare occurrence for the West Ham whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. Football hipsters may drone on about false nines, double pivots, half spaces, inverted wingbacks, expected goals, transitions, and so on ………….. but it is hard work, effort and energy that have provided the foundation for exponential improvement.

The other unusual feature of West Ham’s season (or at least it was to about a week ago) has been a better than expected experience with injuries. There have been isolated setbacks, but were negotiated successfully despite the thinness of the squad. But suddenly there is an epidemic. No-one can accuse this team of being spineless but we do now look like a team without a spine, the result of the simultaneous absence of Declan Rice, Angelo Ogbonna, and Michail Antonio.

I’m sure I am not alone in fearing that these injuries will be our undoing. Perhaps the manager has a cunning plan but with no radical options available, Moyes is unlikely to stray far from what (and who) he knows and trusts.

I can’t see any change from the defence line-up that started against Wolves despite the vulnerability that has crept in and seen five goals conceded in the last two games. That will mean Vladimir Coufal and Arthur Masuaku featuring again as wing backs and providing width going forward. Unfortunately, there is no alternative to the ageing legs of Mark Noble alongside Tomas Soucek in the midfield ‘double pivot’. Several creative suggestions have been mooted online including moving Issa Diop, Said Benrahma or Coufal into that role, but even if I coul dbe convinced they might work, Moyes certainly wouldn’t go for any of them. My particular concern with Noble in this game is picking up yellow cards for poorly timed tackles on James Madison, another player who likes to go to ground rather too easily.

That leaves a front three of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. They provide enough threat to cause problems to an uncertain Leicester defence, but only if the rest of the team realise that none of them is Antonio. A very different level of service will be required.

The Foxes went through their own mini-injury crisis recently, but have come through it relatively unscathed and without the predicted fall off in performances. Of the key players only Harvey Barnes remains side-lined. They famously faltered in the home straight last season and will be eager not to do so yet again. Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans present a formidable partnership in defensive midfield while Kelechi Iheanacho has been the surprise pick lately as Jamie Vardy’s partner in attack. Linked with the Hammers before his move to Leicester in 2017 he has yet to deliver on his early promise and price tag.

Leicester have developed into much more of a possession-based side than the one that won the title in 2015/16. Back then they averaged just over 42% possession compared to 53% so far this season. By comparison, West Ham are averaging 41% this term. This provides a good indicator of how tomorrow’s match will pan out – containment and strike on the break.

The Foxes have yet to taste defeat at the London Stadium. At full strength I would give the Hammers every chance of changing that. The worries for me are not being able to adapt to the absence of Antonio and the lack of pace in defensive midfield. These tip the scales in Leicester’s favour but I think we’ll still manage to get a draw out of it. COYI!

West Ham Must Stay Positive Or Top Four Will Be Out Of Reach: No Time To Be Crying Wolves

Out of reach, so far, we never had the start. Out of reach, couldn’t see, Top Four’s ever meant to be. Who dares, wins, Mr Moyes!

If someone were to analyse my dreams, they might reach the conclusion that frustration is the common and recurring theme. Invariably, I am attempting to achieve or reach some goal or target and am unable to do so – whether it is catching a train, getting to an important appointment on time or finishing the weekend in the top four. West Ham are at the root of all my character defects!

The Hammers last league outing seems like it was ages ago now, interrupted as it was by another tedious international break. World cup qualifiers have become a case of going through motions these days. Designed to ensure the major sponsorship friendly countries have a smooth route through to the finals. It would be astonishing if any of the big name countries fail to qualify.

Anyhow, it has allowed for the disappointment of throwing away a three goal lead to Arsenal to fester in the mind far longer than necessary. An extra two points on the board would put a whole different complexion on the table as West Ham’s visit to Molineux rounds off Matchweek 30. An opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool and into the coveted fourth place spot.

Who in their wildest dreams could have imagined such a scenario at the start of the season? But is it an opportunity that will be taken? Can the nerve hold? Or will a promising position once again be kept tantalisingly out of reach – either through an absence of belief, a lack of focus or sense of inferiority? Will we end with another Jim Bowen “Look at what you could have won” moment? In short, when push comes to shove, will West Ham go all Spursy?

Immediately, the third goal went in against Arsenal, something odd happened on the pitch. What should have been a position of dominance morphed spontaneously into a phase of uncertainty. Not the result of tactical change but one born out of apprehension. Granted the third goal finally woke Arsenal up, but West Ham’s mindset changed as well. The passing and movement that had so unsettled the Gunners disappeared, replaced by hopeful balls forward and a willingness to throw away possession. Initiative was surrendered and, once Arsenal got one back, hope and momentum were effectively lost. The baffling substitutions only added to a sense of throwing in the towel. By the end, even coming away with a point looked unlikely.  The ease with which Liverpool despatched a poor Arsenal side at the weekend underlined the frustration felt.

For this evening’s encounter with Wolves, West Ham are able to welcome Pablo Fornals and Arthur Masuaku back to the squad. With all three of the Arsenal goals coming down our left hand side, David Moyes may be tempted to return to a back three rather than allow Aaron Cresswell to cope with the speed of the inconsistent Traore by himself. Despite calls for a Cresswell England return, left back remains a big problem position for the Hammers.

It is unfortunate that Angelo Ogbonna is not yet ready to return. Without the Italian at his side, Craig Dawson has had a bit of a wobble just lately. He and Issa Diop will need to be at their sharpest, even against the shot shy Wolves attack. A hattrick of own goals would be a disaster.

Hopefully, the two-week break will have given Michail Antonio another chance to recharge his batteries. He hasn’t been the same since his last injury and his old spark will be vital for the run-in. The dilemma of having only one striker.

Wolves have had a disappointing season. After two impressive 7th place finishes they have seriously lost their way this season, although sit relatively comfortably in mid-table. The loss of Jimenez has been a big blow as was the departure of Jota. At the same time the powers of midfield general Moutinho appear to be on the wane. I do like what I have seen of Neto and despite sounding like a discount supermarket chain he provides their greatest offensive threat. Traore has the occasional inspirational game but largely flatters to deceive, while Silva has the look of a player totally unsuited to the hurly burly of English football.

What can we expect tonight? Will the enforced break have any unexpected impacts, as it did for Chelsea and West Brom? Will the occasion and the chance to go fourth cause the players to freeze? With a return of just one point from the last two disappointing performances, it is the ideal time to get the show back on the road. It will be character, as well as skill and endeavour, that will determine outcome. As will a positive approach from the manager. Collectively, they must believe they can win. Form suggests they can, but what is in their heads?

When I first drafted this post I was banking on big performances from Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Jesse Lingard providing the inspiration for a satisfying 2-0 win. News has since broken that Rice will be missing for an as yet unspecified period of time as the result of a knee injury picked up on England duty. That is a huge concern given that Moyes will no doubt see the likely replacement as Mark Noble. I wish him well and hope he has a blinder but the reality is he is far too slow still to be playing at this level.

Still hoping for the best but the confidence has dropped considerably. COYI!

Moyes Must Avoid Doing Something Stupid Again As West Ham Entertain The Gunners

They practice every day to find some clever balls to play. To score a header or two. And then they go and spoil it all, by doing something stupid like ….. respecting the point!

No sooner had I been presenting the case for David Moyes pragmatism than he went and spoiled it all by doing something stupid with his puzzling team selection at Old Trafford. My argument that his approach was based on realism over caution were made to look well wide of the mark.

Granted there was the enforced absence of Jesse Lingard and the withdrawal through injury of Pablo Fornals and the manager is not blessed with the strongest of squads. But immediately the team-sheet was revealed it had the whiff of waving the white flag about it. What a boost it must have been for the opposition to note the lack of offensive players.

Being prepared to surrender possession has become a relatively common tactic in the Premier League these days, but without a supporting ability to cause damage on the counter, it is futile. When the height of aspirations is hoping to hold out for ninety minutes, it usually ends badly. It was a pale shadow of the spirit of adventure shown a few weeks earlier against a far superior side from the other side of Manchester.

It was frustrating to hear Moyes say after the game that he wouldn’t have done anything differently, even with the benefit of hindsight. Surely, he must have recognised that the team selection was all wrong. That not replacing Lingard with a ball playing midfielder would negate any threat posed by Michail Antonio or Jarrod Bowen. That despite Ben Johnson’s having the makings of a top class defender, he is not cut-out as a wing-back operating on the wrong side. That it is many moons since Mark Noble has operated effectively enough to start at this level.  

Being annoyed by a defeat at Manchester United may reflect how far expectations have come, but more so, it illustrates how far we have to go, especially when you look at the lack of depth on the bench. Should European qualification be achieved, it promises to be a one season wonder unless there is significant strengthening in all positions – and what are the chances of that happening based on past performance?

This weekend, West Ham welcome Arsenal to the London Stadium for the penultimate London derby of the season. The Gunners may not be the same force as during their Wenger heyday, but they have continued to dominate the head-to-head against the Hammers– West Ham having won just three times in the last twenty-six meetings. Even when the Hammers have given a good account of themselves, Arsenal have managed to steal the points in the final minutes.

The visitors are currently on track for their lowest league finish since the last knockings of George Graham. Replacing Wenger has proven almost as difficult as replacing Ferguson at Manchester United, as the Gunners (along with their North London neighbours) slowly but surely slip further behind in the super rich standings. Having initially believed that Arteta might turn out to be an inspired appointment, his team has floundered and lacks any identity. Despite the introduction of several promising youngsters, the team continues to be hamstrung by the inconsistency of big money signings.

There is nothing for West Ham to fear but fear itself. I don’t expect the Hammers to boss possession but do expect to see far more threat as an attacking force. The return of Lingard is important in that respect but better contributions are also required from the other forward players – Antonio, Bowen, Fornals (if fit), Said Benrahma and/ or Manuel Lanzini. I would hope to see a return to a back four and the time is right for Super Tomas Soucek to put and end to his seven-match mini-goal drought.

With only a handful of league games being played this weekend due to FA Cup commitments, a win would see the Hammers go into the international break level on points and games played with Chelsea. That would be some achievement and for all the disappointment of the approach at Old Trafford it has been a phenomenal season, and a phenomenal effort by manager, players and coaches. I fancy a 2-1 win against an opponent who are pinning most of their season’s hopes on Europa League success. COYI!