Who Gives A Toffee? Fellow Under-Achievers Everton Take On West Ham In Battle For The Middle Ground

Inconsistency, poor attitude and delusions of grandeur continue to plague the two Premier League nearly clubs competing for scraps at the London Stadium.

A season punctuated by international breaks and blank cup weekends (one unavoidable and one unforced) comes back to life this weekend as the league finally moves towards its thrilling climax (© Sky Sports).

There comes a time in most seasons when you start to wish it was all over.  File it under disappointing and hope that it will all be better next time after a profitable summer pruning the deadwood and strengthening the squad .  I guess there has been definite improvement since the employment of Manuel Pellegrini – more entertaining football, at least –  but the fact remains that, with seven games to go, there is precious little to play for apart from a remote possibility of Europa League qualification.  The feeling is like being at stop nine of a twelve pub crawl, when the sensible option would be to give up, go home and get some sleep, but the voice inside convinces you to carry on to the World’s End.

No doubt when the season does eventually end there will be a football sized gap at the weekend which can only be replaced by the irritation of endless transfer window speculation.  Despite the knowledge that the majority of stories are most likely made up by some bloke in his bedroom, it is impossible to resist clicking that latest teasing headline to yet another spurious rumour.  We will then react with enthusiasm, disbelief or outrage depending on the prevailing view of the board’s ambitions. For the record, I have taken an indicative vote and decided to reject the Shelvey or Mitrovic rumours as undesirable outcomes.

Moving on to today’s game and we welcome fellow serial underachievers, Everton, to the London Stadium.  This fascination of this Cinderella derby, featuring two clubs from big footballing cities who have long lived in the shadows of more illustrious neighbours, is which of their inconsistent incarnations will be on show .  Both appear to have a shared set of shortcomings whereby, lacking the resources to compete with the truly big boys, they assume there is some form of reflected glory that renders it unnecessary to adopt the graft, commitment, determination and teamwork demonstrated by less glamorous clubs.

Everton have long been one of the Hammers principle bogey teams, both home and away, although a win today would make it three in a row for West Ham and earn a rare league double, the first since 1972/3.  The two teams are also in a tug-of-war battle for the honour of most all-time Premier League defeats; a tussle in which Everton have now regained the initiative to lead by 364 to 361.

Many people say that you should not change a winning team but I’m not sure whether that still applies when you have played badly and won.  Given how West Ham had the look of a pub team for much of the match against Huddersfield, until it was rescued by a rousing finish and a fortunate narrow victory, it would be no surprise if the manager decided to shake things up a bit.  Once again it was a poor attitude and lack of application that was mostly to blame.  Unfortunately, it appears that the player who made the greatest contribution to turning around that game, Samir Nasri, will not be available this weekend.

A recall for Fabian Balbuena following his recovery from injury must now be long overdue.  The team, and Issa Diop in particular, have missed his organisational and leadership skills.  In the absence of any other options, Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell will continue as full backs.

It is difficult to imagine that any of the current strikers will still be at the club when the 2019/20 season kicks-off in August, and so it is anyone’s guess which name will appear on the team-sheet today.  Who will be Pellegrini’s choice between the angry Austrian, who remains the most able to play a lone striker role, and the mercurial Mexican who is likely to be full of confidence following his two goal haul against the Terriers?  As ever, playing two up front sounds appealing in theory but would see the flimsy West Ham midfield badly exposed, even allowing for the presence of new England international, Declan Rice.  The media have already agreed that the transfer of Rice to a top six club in the summer is a ‘done deal’ but we might be lucky to get one more season out of him leading up to EURO 2020.

Late season games often see the odd young player thrown into the mix but I do not see any radical team selection decisions being made until the chance of seventh has completely receded.  Personally, I feel that a youngster or two on the bench this time of year is always worth it just in case circumstances allow them to get a run out.

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Everton have experienced as inconsistent a season as West Ham and currently sit two places and two points below the Hammers.  In theory, they are another of the teams that could secure seventh place.  The greatest threats are Richarlison and Sigurdsson both of whom have twelve league goals to their credit this season – compared to no Hammer yet having reached double figures.  Keep those two quiet and the chances of victory are greatly increased.  Sadly, the hapless Walcott is unlikely to feature and his aimless running up and down the wing will not be part of the entertainment.  In the distant past, Walcott saved some of his best work for games against West Ham, but those days are long gone.  Arsenal have always known when the time was right to jettison their spent forces, something that West Ham have learned to their cost on several occasions over the years.

It will be a first London Stadium visit of the season this evening for referee Paul Tierney of Lancashire.  A prolific issuer of yellow cards (83 from 26 games), Tierney’s only other Hammer’s engagement this term was the away victory over Newcastle in December.

Neither Lawro nor Paul Merson were inclined think too long and hard about this fixture and both have gone for the draw, 1-1 and 2-2 respectively.  Failure to win today could be a final dent in the battered dreams of seventh place whereas victory would keep the flame flickering for a little while longer.  By the time kick-off comes around the Matchweek 32 fate of Wolves and Watford will already have been decided, as will the potential for ending the day any further up the table.  Heart is going to overrule head this week with the prediction of a controlled 2-0 home win.

West Ham Need A Shot Of Enthusiasm Or The Season Will Simply Fade And Die

To maintain a semblance of interest in the remainder of the season, West Ham must find a far better attitude in today’s contractual obligation encounter with doomed bottom dwellers, Huddersfield.

With it being FA Cup weekend, there is only the remnants of a Premier League afternoon with just three uninspiring fixtures scheduled including the visit of doomed Huddersfield Town to the London Stadium.  On paper this should be the most cast iron of banker home wins; yet the combined lack of motivation and consistency that has plagued Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham revolution leaves a niggling doubt in the dark recesses of the mind.

Following their spirited survival last season, Huddersfield have spent most of this one on life support to the point where it might have been kinder to all concerned if they had been able to forfeit the remainder of their games.  When they parted company with promotion winning manager, David Wagner, early in the new year only the appointment of Tom Cruise or The Expendable could have given them any hope of escape.  Still, for a team looking for chink of light at the end of a very long tunnel (if only to raise their spirits) then an encounter with the Hammers will often oblige.

Infected with the eternal, irrational, straw clutching optimism of the football supporter, I had been clinging to the hope that West Ham could somehow find sufficient momentum to launch a viable challenge for a seventh place finish.  For me, however, that flicker of hope was finally extinguished in the dreadful performance at Cardiff last week – one of many tame away defeats to lower placed opposition that we have had to endure in recent months.  As managers often do in these circumstances, Pellegrini has vowed to improve the awayday experience; but in truth his squad looks well short of the qualities needed to overcome resolute opponents.  It is admirable that the manager is determined to play with a particular style and formation but sadly, it seems he doesn’t have the players to put his plans into practice in an effective and consistent manner.  In particular, we easily lose shape and compactness when put under pressure – leaving the team exposed down the flanks and isolated in attack.

It would be a major surprise if we did not see several changes from the side that performed so feebly in Wales.  In defence, there should be a welcome return to the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership (at the expense of Angelo Ogbonna) plus a possible recall for Pablo Zabaleta in place of Ryan Fredericks.  By default, Aaron Cresswell will continue at left back.

The centre of midfield continues to be an obvious  weakness despite the season long heroic performances of Declan Rice.  Based on last week’s showing maybe Samir Nasri will get the nod over Manuel Lanzini while skipper Mark Noble will probably keep his place to make up the numbers.  There is not a lot to choose between Noble and Pedro Obiang especially considering there is precious little leadership demonstrated on the pitch right now – at least not in the face of adversity!

In the more advanced positions, surely we will, at long last, see the return of Marko Arnautovic, in place of Javier Hernandez; supported by Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio on the flanks.  Antonio has been very unfortunate to find himself on the bench after recent performances and is capable of posing more of a threat to Huddersfield than Robert Snodgrass.  While Anderson has not been at his best in recent weeks the team was still very much poorer after he was substituted at half time last week.

Just so that he doesn’t feel left out, soon to be HOTY, Lukasz Fabianski, will continue with his undisputed run between the goalposts.

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Perhaps there is now an opportunity to give at least some game time to a number of the young players who have been training with the first team squad.  I would particularly be keen to get a look at Nathan Holland who, from my admittedly limited viewing, has looked a more complete player, at current stage of development, than Grady Diangana.  Another opportunity to see Ben Johnson would also be interesting.

As well as experiencing a lengthy run of poor form on the pitch, Huddersfield are also now suffering badly in the injury room.  A long list of injuries includes Durm, Depoitre, Diakhaby, Duhaney, Hogg  and Mbenza.  Their main problem during two seasons in the Premier League has been the failure to score goals and a toothless terrier is not really any threat.  Despite this, they do have several useful players; notably Billing and Pritchard.

Anyone looking for additional entertainment this afternoon will be able to watch overweight West Yorkshire referee Jonathan Moss in his struggle to keep up with play.  Didn’t there used to be a fitness test for refs?  Moss was last seen at the London Stadium for the win against Arsenal.

As they did last week, the BBC and Sky pundits are banking on a comfortable Hammer’s win – Lawro by 2 – 0 and Charlie Nicholas, standing in for the absent Paul Merson, by 3-0.  Despite my concerns that the remainder of the season could become two months of going through the motions, I do expect a routine victory today.  Home form at the London Stadium has been very strong (one defeat in the last nine games) and it would be remarkable if the Hammers let this one slip.  Just to be perverse we are sure to concede a goal but still run out as 4-1 winners.

West Ham To End Their Awayday Blues And Say Bye Bye To The Bluebirds

You were lots of fun to know, But I have to let you go, Bye bye bluebird! Can West Ham boost their European ambitions with three welcome away points?

Many readers will undoubtedly remember the seminal 1999 Faroe Islands road trip movie “Bye Bye Bluebird” – or perhaps even the Boney M track of the same name from 1979.   Twenty years further on we may be about to witness yet another farewell to the Bluebirds as West Ham travel west to face a struggling Cardiff City side.

The Hammers sit comfortably in ninth place with a realistic shot at competing for seventh spot if only they could be bothered; while Cardiff are frantically attempting to keep heads above water as they splash around in the bottom three – two points from safety but weighed down by a vastly inferior goal difference.  With limited resources at their disposal a lowly position in the Premier League table is not a surprise and, if at the start of the season, you had told manager Colin Wanker that he would still have his job come March, he would have been highly delighted.   He can now look forward to a nice payoff during the summer.

Still, the unlikable Wanker is long enough in the tooth to recognise that West Ham have been susceptible to in-your-face opponents on a number of occasions this season – as evidenced by meek surrender to high octane opponents such as Burnley, Brighton and Bournemouth.  It will no surprise to see a similar game plan from Cardiff this afternoon and Manuel Pellegrini’s side must avoid their typical lumbering and lethargic start to the match.

The Hammers have been knocked off their perch as the runaway leaders of the injury league and now sit in a much healthier fifth place.  Apart from the long term absentees (Jack Wilshere, Andriy Yarmolenko, Winston Reid and Carlos Sanchez) the only injury doubt is Aaron Cresswell.  That means a possible return for ‘The General’ Fabian Balbuena although this is likely to be on the bench given the fine recent form of Angelo Ogbonna.  Pellegrini has mentioned several times how many games Issa Diop has been called upon to play this season but I don’t see an Ogbonna/ Balbuena axis working very effectively if the manager is tempted to give the young Frenchman a rest.

Elsewhere on the pitch the selection dilemmas are likely to revolve around choices between Michail Antonio or Robert Snodgrass and Marko Arnautovic or Javier Hernandez – although Pellegrini is no stranger to pulling a surprise rabbit out of the hat when you least expect it.  My preference would be for Arnautovic and Antonio, both of whom should be able to pose plenty of problems for the second worst defence in the league.

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To make Cardiff’s survival task more difficult they will now be without star defender Sol Bamba for the remainder of the season.  The final relegation place looks likely to be a tussle between the Bluebirds, Southampton, Brighton and Burnley but the Welsh side look to be at the greatest risk for a quick return to the second tier.

This week and next week see two rare Saturday at 3 pm kick-offs for West Ham, before having to wait until April 20 for the next one.   I have, for some time, had a sneaking feeling that eventually Champion’s League games will be switched to the weekends to provide more friendly kick-off times for the vast worldwide TV audience.  I sincerely hope this never happens but can see the lucrative UEFA money making vehicle taking increasing and incremental precedence over the domestic game – notice how top six managers increasingly demand their clubs get fixture scheduling priority in preparation for CL games.

Today’s referee is Graham Scott from Oxforshire who, as well as officiating at West Ham’s defeat at Arsenal back in August, was also in charge of the corresponding Cardiff fixture at the London Stadium.

The BBC’s Lawro and Sky’s Merson are unanimous in predicting a 2-0 West Ham win – which is just a little worrying.  The last thing needed, for a team that has failed to record an away victory this year and has lost five of the last six away in all competitions, is a sense of complacency.  Provided the Hammers successfully weather the early Cardiff storm then the extra quality in the team can see them run out as comfortable winners -maybe by as many as three clear goals.  If they fail to start the game on the front foot, however, it could be deja-vu Burnley all over again.

Hammering Out A Toon: West Ham Set Their Sights On Europe

A pivotal match that will determine if there is to be a realistic effort to contest seventh place or whether it will be a long, slow season fade. Which West Ham will turn up?

If the average Liverpool Street commuter went down as easily as Bernardo Silva did, after brushing against a bystander, then the station concourse would resemble a medieval battlefield at every rush hour.  The referee, however, chose to apply the ‘he was entitled to go down’ interpretation and the resultant penalty was enough for the Hammers to leave Manchester once again with their pockets empty.  There was an interesting contrast with an earlier penalty area incident where Manuel Lanzini (one of the select band of players to have a ‘deceiving the referee’ rap on his charge sheet) elected to stay on his feet – and thus no foul was committed in the eyes of the law!

Defeat left West Ham with just nine points from the eight league games played so far in 2019.  A return that will need to be significantly improved if a realistic challenge is to be made for seventh place, the best of the rest title and the opportunity to lose to Romanian part-timers in next season’s Europa Cup.

Today’s opponents, Newcastle United, have continued to pursue their win a few/ lose a lot cycle of recent seasons, but having hauled themselves up to 13th place and 31 points (just five behind the Hammers) they no longer look to be serious relegation contenders.  The Geordies have picked up thirteen points in this calendar year and come into the game looking for a third win on the bounce – following home victories over Huddersfield and Burnley.  Their away form, however, is less impressive.

Just when the West Ham injury situation was starting to look more positive a new outbreak struck prior to the midweek game.  A cluster of full-back ailments resulting in a Premier League debut for Ben Johnson; who performed admirably given the formidable circumstances.  It is unlikely that we will see him again today with both Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell reported to be available to start; this apparently despite Cresswell having broken toe – normally three months on the sidelines for a Hammer.  Marko Arnautovic also missed the Manchester City game with a virus and a late fitness test will determine whether his course of industrial strength Lemsip will allow him to start.  In his absence it should be a return for Javier Hernandez unless Manuel Pellegrini wants to give Andy Carroll another chance at failing to score against his old club.

Goalscoring has again been something of a disappointment this season with none of the nine teams above us in the table having scored fewer.  The goals have been shared between twelve players but with no player yet to reach double figures.  My enthusiastic prediction in the early part of the season that Arnautovic would beat Paolo Di Canio’s 16 goal Premier League record now seems well off the mark.

In midfield there should be a return for Mark Noble (at the expense of Pedro Obiang) and I expect Samir Nasri to keep his place ahead of Robert Snodgrass.  Lanzini will again settle for a place on the bench as he continues his way back to full fitness.

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For Newcastle, Rondon is always a handful and would be a top striker if only he scored more goals. Ritchie always seems to play well against West Ham and it will be interesting to see Longstaff who some (mainly Geordies) mention in the same breath as our own Declan Rice.  The one iron that we don’t want to see doing well today is Almiron.  With Benitez offering a little more in the way of adventure these days our defenders need to maintain their sometimes wayward concentration if we are to avoid a repeat of last season’s 2-3 defeat.

Chris Kavanagh from Lancashire is today’s referee and makes his third Hammer’s appearance of the campaign – a defeat at home to Wolves and draws at Huddersfield and home to Brighton.

If the Premier League table were based on the predictions of Mark Lawrenson, West Ham would be in 17th place with 25 points while Newcastle would be sitting pretty in 10th on 40 points.  Sticking to these broken guns he is opting for a 2-0 away win today.  Over at Sky, Paul Merson has settled for a 1-1 stalemate.   Slow starts continue to plague the Hammers and they will need to hit the ground running to contain a lively Newcastle side that has looked better organised lately.  West Ham home form has been much improved of late and I will bank on the players being motivated sufficiently to earn a second consecutive 3-1 win at the London Stadium.

Flying Pigs Head To Manchester: Can West Ham Pull Off A Shock?

Raising their game against top opposition or rolling over meekly? What to expect from West Ham’s midweek trip to the Etihad?

Having taken all three points from the home game against Fulham, I make it that West Ham are now safe from relegation this season.  Even if the Hammers embarked on an eleven match losing streak we would still manage to survive having accumulated 36 points.  Huddersfield and Fulham seem certain to go and it is looking increasingly like a battle between Cardiff, Southampton and Brighton for the final spot.

At the other end of the Premier League only those wishing to make the league seem more exciting than it actually is (TV pundits and Spurs supporters) can see anything other than a two horse race – between tonight’s money-bagged hosts Manchester City and perennial Cinderella’s Liverpool.  Almost inevitably, City’s far superior squad depth will see them through to a probable domestic treble – they will face sterner tests on the European front.  For all of Liverpool’s superficial gloss; the flashy spoilers, spotlights, alloy wheels and in-car entertainment system they are still only powered by a 1.3 litre engine.

West Ham’s task tonight is to try and keep the interest going for as long as possible by somehow preventing the Sky-Blues from taking all three points.  That is the optimistic view.  At the other extreme, we can but hope that the exertion of extra time and penalties at the weekend plus the absence of a few key City players (notably Fernandinho) will serve to keep the score down to single figures.  Although West Ham frequently reserve their best performances for games against the top sides they can also be guilty of early capitulation and easily overrun.  Away form is not great with no wins and just one point since the turn of the year.

Former City supremo, Manuel Pellegrini, will be hoping for a better outcome than in the season’s reverse fixture at the London Stadium in November, where a much-too-open Hammer’s side were easily beaten by four goals to nil.  Despite having the luxury of a long break prior to the Fulham game, the manager has still been talking about squad rotation as a means of coping with two games in four days – with several players now returning from injury, at least he now has a squad to rotate.

Keeping a compact shape will be key to staying in the game – we are not going to able to outplay them.  Then it will need either quick counter-attacks (as happened in the most recent 2015 success) or set pieces to provide any hope of inflicting our own damage – and set pieces really haven’t been a strong point this season.  Interesting that the two headed goals against Fulham took the total up to just three for the season to date.  A side equipped to deny the opposition space and that can break quickly would seem the only way of engineering an upset.

I think we will probably see Ryan Fredericks in for a flagging Pablo Zabaleta and Marko Arnautovic replacing the handy Javier Hernandez; but any other change will depend on the perceived fitness of either Samir Nasri and Manuel Lanzini.  Perhaps one of them will start in place of one of Mark Noble or Robert Snodgrass.

Making his third West Ham appearance of the season is referee Stuart Atwell from Warwickshire.  He was previously in charge of defeats to Bournemouth in the league and Tottenham in the league cup.  It will also be his third Etihad gig of the season following City wins over both Fulham and Bournemouth.

Not surprisingly the pundits (like the bookmakers) have this down as a banker home win.  Merson goes for 3-0 and Lawro 3-1.  With Wolves suffering a surprise defeat to Huddersfield last night and Watford facing a trip to Anfield it is a shame that the Hammers do not have a more amenable fixture in the shuffle towards seventh place.  At least, that target is likely to be no more remote following this current round of matches.  The longer that West Ham can keep City at bay then the greater the chance of an upset – even if it remains a small one.  An early City goal could open the floodgates against an often fragile West Ham resolve – even though in their earlier defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester City had lost after taking an early lead.  My best case scenario is a 0-0 draw.

Hammers Bid Farewell To Fulham In Frightful Friday Night Affair

Will it be back from the warm weather break with a bang or will the usual slow start against unfancied opposition disappoint once more?

I may have mentioned this before but my very first visit to Upton Park was to watch a game against Fulham.  It was in March 1961 and in the immediate aftermath of Ted Fenton being mysteriously sent home on sick leave – just before his eventual sacking and replacement by Ron Greenwood.  A disappointing 2-1 defeat set the tone nicely for the ensuing sixty years or so.

A dark secret from back then was that I inexplicably believed that Bubbles included the line ‘Fortune’s always hiding, lilacs everywhere’.  Perhaps not the most amusing of misheard lyrics but it was refreshing to hear that the current multi-lingual squad had managed a better grasp of the words – as they serenaded Manuel Lanzini’s at his 26th   birthday bash during the annual ‘knocked out the cup early’ warm weather holiday in Marbella.  With a perception that the team usually returns from such breaks with a lethargic holiday hangover all eyes will be on what is served up for us tonight.

Of all the spectator unfriendly, moved for the TV schedules, kick-off times, it is the Friday night one that I dislike the most.  Friday night is for unwinding at the end of the working week with a meal and a drink – it is not meant for football and has the added disadvantage of leaving the rest of the weekend free to be roped into other duties such as shopping or garden related activities.  The weekend doesn’t start here but ends before it has even started!

The season has a serious danger of fizzling out to nothing unless an inspired run for seventh place can be somehow pulled out of the hat.  A straw poll of fellow supporters suggests a 10th to 12th finish is closer to expectations – which, for me, would represent a failure (by the club as a whole) based on where it sits in the money league.

Tonight’s opponents would, no doubt, bite your arm off at the prospect of mid-table obscurity but, regardless of the outcome tonight, it is difficult to see them lasting long enough to have a shot at second season syndrome.  Maybe attempting such a major squad renovation in the summer was a flawed strategy and perhaps they were too quick to jettison the manager who had earned them promotion.  Bringing in Ranieri was an odd choice given that he is hardly the type of inspiring character needed in a relegation dogfight.  He will dine out on his ‘serendipitous’ title winning season at Leicester forever but will most likely soon have a matching relegation honour to balance it out.

Reports have it that several of the Hammer’s long term injured (Lanzini, Fabian Balbuena and Samir Nasri) could be in the frame to play a part in today’s game.  It is unlikely that any will be making a start but may well feature from the bench.  If there are any changes to the eleven that started at Selhurst Park then it would be Pablo Zabaleta returning in place of Ryan Fredericks and Marko Arnautovic replacing Javier Hernandez.

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Although I can understand why supporters might be a little miffed following Arnautovic’s antics during the transfer window, he is the only player in the squad capable of playing effectively as a lone striker.  Manuel Pellegrini may, of course, opt to play with two strikers but that would leave the team woefully short in midfield numbers and energy – even against a side with Fulham’s limitations.  The reservation with Arnautovic, though, is that, based on the evidence of the footage from Spain, he looked to be carrying a little extra weight than ideal.

The Friday night referee is Lee Mason from Lancashire who was last seen at the London Stadium in December for the defeat against Watford.

The usual pundits are unanimous in their prediction of a West Ham win; with Merson going for 3-1 against Lawro’s 2-0.  The Hammer’s consistent inconsistency over the years might have prepared us for any eventuality and many a team looking to end a miserable run of away results has frequently found West Ham to be charitable hosts.  However, even if the visitors press and harry in midfield to upset the Hammer’s rhythm their defence is so shocking that it would seem impossible not to score.    One of the most memorable West Ham victories over Fulham that I have seen was a 7-2 win in February 1968 – a game that featured a rare compendium of goals from Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking and Martin Peters (plus one from Brian Dear).  It would be most agreeable to witness something similar this evening to make up for a spoiled weekend.

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action, Please: West Ham At The Palace!

All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me! Which West Ham will it be making the short trip out to south London suburbia to take on the Eagles of Crystal Palace?

It was, I believe, Brendan Rodgers, who first talked about ‘being in the conversation’ referring to his side’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win the Premier League in the 2013/14 season.  The phrase has since been picked up by a host of commentators and pundits who might say (laughably, I know) that Tottenham are ‘in the conversation’ as far as this year’s title is concerned or else may debate who ‘is in the conversation’ for this season’s player of the year award – entries, of course, limited to those appearing for a top six club.

It made me wonder whether West Ham were likely to appear in any conversation any time soon.  Perhaps, and with some justification, which is the most injury prone team in the league or, maybe, which is the most inconsistent?  Ideally, it would be who is the conversation to finish best of the rest and end up snatching a Europa Cup spot.  A great deal more consistency would be required to make that a reality!

There were so many plaudits following the Monday night performance against Liverpool that it is difficult to remember that West Ham didn’t actually win the game.  Perhaps they would have gone on to do so had it not been for Simon The-One-Eyed Linesman.  Klopp came in for a lot of criticism for his post-match rant about the officials but he is not the first manager to be found spouting bollocks in the heat of the moment.  To his credit he still took time to congratulate both sets of players as they left the field at the end of the game.

Exactly how the same team that performed so feebly against Wimbledon and Wolves managed to raise their game to such an extent against Liverpool continues to defy logic.  It would seem to suggest that there are or have been some serious attitude issues within the squad.  Any clues as to whether these have now been put behind them will be on show when they take the field against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park this afternoon.  Since winning at Southampton, just after Christmas, it is now four straight away defeats (including cup) on the bounce, serving to balance out the recent improvement in results at the London Stadium.

Even though, as one of the top twenty richest clubs in the world, we may like to see ourselves as knocking on the top six door along with other moneyed pretenders such as Everton and Newcastle, the reality in recent season has been one of tussles with the likes of Palace and Southampton in the lower to middle reaches of the league.  In the five seasons since Palace returned to the Premier League, the Eagles have finished above the Hammers on three occasions.  With only two places, but six points, separating the two teams, it would be a major disappointment if that scenario happened again.

The main selection dilemmas for Manuel Pellegrini are whether Marko Arnautovic returns following several weeks out with the sulks and whether Ryan Fredericks keeps his starting berth or is replaced by Pablo Zabaleta.  Everyone had a decent game on Monday but the manager still needs to pick his strongest team – the ancient concept of not changing a (nearly) winning team is a dated one in the modern game.  Despite Javier Herndandez putting in one of his better non-scoring displays, Arnautovic has far more to offer in the lone striker role.  If there was one thing clear from the Liverpool game it was that the team are much more compact and with better shape when there are more bodies in midfield – with current personnel two strikers just doesn’t work.  Fredericks would be unlucky to lose his place but I expect Zabaleta to get the nod.

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As for Palace, it seems that Zaha has been given a suspended suspension so that he can play today despite an extra match ban following his dismissal for making fun of the referee.  Perhaps in the circumstances he should be electronically tagged during the game both to monitor his whereabouts and his outrageous diving – a sort of Simulation Assistant Referee based on the ‘Tilt’ functionality of old style pinball machines.

The danger for West Ham looks to be down the Palace right flank where the marauding Wan-Bissaka (surely in the conversation for young player of the year alongside Declan Rice) and one of the league’s top chance creator, Andros Townsend, will need to be carefully marshalled.  With Pellegrini’s preference for the high line and narrow defending it is a cause for concern that it may allow even Benteke or Batshuayi to find opportunities to score.

The match-day referee is Craig Pawson from South Yorkshire.  Pawson was in charge of that most recent West Ham away win at Southampton.  He started the season with a flurry of red cards but has since calmed down a little.

Of the pundits, Lawro is convinced by a 1-1 draw while Merson has become frustrated by the Hammer’s inconsistency and foresees a 1-0 home win.  I always believe that these encounters will have goals in them and fancy at least four or more this afternoon.  For the Hammers to triumph, it will need the same intensity and application that we saw on Monday.    We can’t always rely on Felipe Anderson and Declan Rice to drag us over the line and it will require others such Angelo Ogbonna, Issa Diop and Aaron Creswell to stay on high alert and play at the top of their game.  Support to Cresswell down our left will also be vital.  Assuming all of that can be delivered I am going for a 3-2 to the Hammers repeat of the December score.