Can The Hammers Make Sure The Lyon Sleeps Tonight (a-west-ham-a-way!)

Bonjour mes petits messieurs de Lyonnais, savez-vous que le West Ham est énorme partout où nous allons?

So here we are, the first European quarter final action for West Ham since the heady days of March 1981. A time when one of my all-time favourite Hammers sides had been romping away with the second division with a League Cup final appointment with Liverpool to look forward, sandwiched between two ECWC games against Dinamo Tblisi.

In a TV commentary on Sunday’s victory over Everton (Jim Proudfoot, I think) it was said that the home leg against Tblisi was played behind closed doors. That was wrong. There were almost 35,000 of us packed into the Boleyn that night to witness one of the finest displays of mesmerising counter attacking football ever produced. Unfortunately, it came from the opposition whose masterclass of tricks, feints, and clever passing bamboozled a shell-shocked West Ham by four goals to one. If there can be such a thing as a favourite defeat, this was it. Just as long as there is no repeat this evening.

Today’s Ligue 1 opposition, Olympique Lyonnais, are a much better-known quantity than Tblisi were back in 1981. Highlights programmes, Youtube reels and the regular movement of players around the European leagues have made sure of that. Lyon are seasoned European campaigners, having featured in either the Champions League or Europa League in nine of the last ten seasons. They have competed in the Champions League group stage four times and even went as far as the semi-finals in 2019/20, having beaten Manchester City in the previous round.

Under new manager, Peter Bosz, this has been a less inspiring season. In Ligue 1 they sit in mid-table obscurity year (they are ninth) making the Europa League their only realistic route to Europe for the 2022/23 campaign.

Despite their travails in the league, Lyon have had an impressive Europa League so far. They won Group A at a canter, undefeated in six games against Rangers, Sparta Prague and Brondby. A commendable Round of 16 victory over runaway Portuguese league leaders, Porto, then set up the quarter final tie with the Hammers.

Familiar names in the Lyon side include Moussa Dembele, who had once looked an excellent prospect at Fulham, and Tottenham reject, Tanguy Ndombele. Others to watch out for are Brazilian playmaker, Pasqueta and the Cameroon striker, Ekambi. They have also been allowed by UEFA to add another Brazilian, Tete (on-loan from Shakhtar Donetsk), to their squad as part of the special transfer window arrangement for Ukraine and Russia based players.

Once again, there are few areas of debate when it comes to predicting the West Ham starting eleven. Manuel Lanzini will miss the game through suspension and Ben Johnson is doubtful with hamstring problems. Hopefully, Vladimir Coufal will return at right back, although for reasons best known to him, David Moyes rates Ryan Fredericks more highly than most supporters do. Otherwise, the only other change to the side that started in the competent win over Everton will be Alphone Areola replacing Lukasz Fabianski between the sticks: Areola, Coufal, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Fornals, Benrahma, Antonio.

Playing the first leg at home never has quite the same sense of jeopardy or urgency about it – there is always a second chance. The London Stadium crowd put in a cracking performance as twelfth man against Sevilla and a repeat of that would surely intimidate the visitors.

The Lyon coach has a reputation for preparing teams that press hard and play attacking football, sometimes recklessly. If the press can be beaten, then it would play nicely to West Ham’s counter-attacking strengths. The Hammers also have a distinct height advantage over Lyon, so set-pieces may also be a deciding factor. While, Lyon have not been prolific in front of goal they do possess several players with impressive goalscoring records. The determination and concentration of Craig Dawson and Kurt Zouma will be significant at both ends.  

A slight worry for West Ham is Declan Rice’s yellow card situation. If I understand the UEFA rules correctly, a card today will result in suspension for the second leg although the slate will be wiped clean before the semi-finals.

It would be great if the tie could effectively be put to bed in the first leg with an emphatic victory. But big wins are a rarity for a team that prefers to protect what they have rather than pressing home the advantage. I can see Lyon finding it difficult to handle Michail Antonio and that will give us the edge required for victory. But only by a margin that will have us sweating again this time next week. COYI!   

Hammers Revival Threatens Toffees Survival

With injuries easing can David Moyes get West Ham geared up for one last push in memorable season?

Football returns from the enforced hibernation of yet another international break to focus once again on the important business of club competition. I am increasingly ambivalent when it come to international football. Delighted whenever a Hammer gets called up by his country and always pleased to see England do well, but I’d rather it didn’t disrupt the rhythm of domestic leagues as much as it now does.

While we were away the draw for the tainted Qatar World Cup took place. Gareth must have been wearing his lucky waistcoat as England were landed the easiest of draws. He needs shooting if his team don’t make it through to the last eight at least.

The World Cup Finals will, of course, cause major and unprecedented disruption to the 2022/23 season. Once the European Nations League and Euro 2024 matches are shoehorned in, the schedule will be energy sapping for the players and frustrating for the fans. The international programme will look something like this:

European Nations League Qualifiers: June & September 2022
World Cup: November/ December 2022
Euro 2024 Qualifiers: March 2023
European Nations League Finals: June 2023
Euro 2024 Qualifiers: June, September, October & November 2023

Are we reaching a point where there is just too much football?

Back on the domestic front, West Ham play eight more league games between today and May 22. There will also be a minimum of two and a maximum of five Europa League fixtures to fit in. In a perfect world the final match of the season will be in Seville on May 26. It could be an exciting couple of months or fizzle out to nothing.

The first game of the run-in sees chaotic crisis club Everton visit the London Stadium. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, then whoever has been making the recruitment decisions at Everton must be stark raving bonkers. They are the Keystone Cops of the Premier League.

The current Toffee’s manager is, of course, top three West Ham pantomime villain, Frank Lampard Jr. He is the seventh manager at Goodison since David Moyes left in 2013. Apart from Martinez, none have lasted more than two seasons despite eye-watering amounts spent in the transfer market. In some ways, what has happened at Goodison is an exaggerated version of what was going on at West Ham until recently. Hubris, pretension, and vanity overruling intelligence and shrewdness when it came to recruitment. The chutzpah of the big-name shirt-holding photo opportunity being preferred to the hard work and diligence of team building and player development. Hopes and prayers that we don’t fall back into that mode.

For all the bad feeling around Lampard, he seems an intelligent chap and one who always looked cut out for management. A mistake that he abandoned a worthwhile apprenticeship at Derby for a taste of the big-time well before he was ready for it. He seems an odd choice to parachute in for a relegation battle, but perhaps he will be lucky that the three teams below him just don’t have enough quality to drag him down. Survival by default.

The Hammers appear to have come through the international break without any additional injury concerns, although it was disappointing that Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek were both required to play a full ninety minutes in meaningless friendlies in midweek. Manuel Lanzini is apparently fine after being involved in a car accident and while Jarrod Bowen and Vladimir Coufal are now back in training, I would be surprised if either of them featured today, except from the bench.  

Despite defeat at Tottenham there have been signs in recent performances that West Ham have recaptured some of their early season swagger. A shame that the doldrums of December and February had scuppered a realistic tilt at the top four.

The subtle tweak to formation that was seen against Aston Villa and Sevilla, with Manuel Lanzini playing deeper, has allowed Soucek to get forward more, without unduly restraining Rice’s freer role. It is closer to a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1. It makes better use of the talent available and I imagine that is how we will line-up today. Unfortunate that Lanzini will miss the Lyon game through suspension.

What was clear from defeat at Tottenham is that West Ham do not have the personnel to play any system that requires wing-backs. Aaron Cresswell, Ben Johnson and Coufal are all admirable defenders but fall short when it comes to the attacking requirements of that role. Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku are not up to standard either in defence or attack.

I can’t see much room for debate over the front three where Michail Antonio will be joined by Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. There has been speculation about Nikola Vlasic starting but other than he once played for Everton there seems no rationale to support this. For all his poor decision making, Benrahma is most probable source of the unexpected.

There is little to suggest that today’s game will be a thriller. Everton are desperate for points and will not want to give any of them up easily. They will defend deep and hope to hit West Ham on the break. Richarlison will be diving to ground and rolling around in simulated agony at every possible opportunity, with or without tactical head injury. The Hammers will need patience and should try to keep the ball moving across the pitch to create space for runners. The tendency to get bogged down in intricate congested triangles might work on the training ground but it is ineffective on the pitch. Breaking down stubborn opposition is not our strongest suit but we showed that we can do it against Sevilla. There is always the set piece for Plan B.

As with any tight game a goal can quickly change the complexion of a game. We need to keep plugging away to rattle the visitor’s brittle confidence. A top six finish is still a possibility, however remote, and it must remain the target until it is impossible. West Ham to win 3-1. COYI!

After The Lord Mayor’ Show: West Ham Must Put Euro Celebrations To One Side For Tottenham Showdown

A return to league action with an encounter that could go some way to determining the final top six placings. Can the Hammers come out on top?

In an ideal world there would have been a little bit longer to bask in the glory of the sensational Thursday night victory against Sevilla. But the reality of modern football is that, less than 72 hours later, West Ham must deal with the small matter of their unruly north London neighbours.

The Sevilla game really surpassed all expectations. A fantastic effort from the team, coaching staff and supporters had the stadium rocking late into the east London evening. It has been a long wait but at last the latest generation of Hammer’s fans have a special European moment to call their own. The excitement and anxiety of sudden death cup games, the mighty and incessant roar of the crowd, the thrill and atmosphere of floodlit football and the glory of a famous comeback against esteemed opponents. Now we just have to repeat it two more times and it’s all back to Sevilla for the final. The occasion was all the sweeter due to how long we have had to wait for it. Could the passion be reproduced if European football was expected every season?

It was excellent performances all round from front to back on Thursday. Everyone played their part and for any limitations in technique there may be, we can never fault the effort and commitment. The subtle change of formation – more of a 4-3-3 than the usual 4-2-3-1 – with Manuel Lanzini sitting deeper and closer to Declan Rice, got the best out of Tomas Soucek. When Soucek is left to do what he is good at – breaking up opposition attacks at one end and getting into the box at the other – he is at his brilliant best.

The nature of the winning goal, scored by Andriy Yarmolenko, made the whole evening even more emotional than it already was. I think I had almost resigned myself to a penalty shootout by the time the unexpected winner unfolded, almost as if it were in slow motion.

There didn’t appear to be any imminent danger when the ball was worked out wide to Pablo Fornals on the left. However, the Spaniard cut inside and unleashed a powerful drive which Bono, the Sevilla keeper, was unable to hold. The ball ran free and there was Yarmolenko to roll the ball into the net. Bono made a desperate attempt at recovery but still couldn’t find what he was looking for. A brief moment of VAR anxiety and then pandemonium.

Cue a tense, nail-biting finale. The referee, who had previously been impervious to the serial Sevilla time-wasting, prolonged the agony with an extra two minutes that he had found somewhere, but the Hammer’s stood firm, and a famous victory was sealed.

I’m reasonably happy with Lyon as quarter final opponents. I would have been even happier with a semi final against the winner of Braga vs Rangers tie – the equivalent of getting a bye into the final – but we need fear no-one. West Ham are now fourth favourites to win the competition behind the three Champions League flops, Barcelona, RB Leipzig, and Atalanta. I’m undecided on my pick between Barcelona and Eintracht Frankfurt for the semis.  The glamour of a tie with Barca is undoubted while Frankfurt feels like the path of least resistance, and would be a repeat of 1976. For students of form, the two German survivors play each other in the Bundesliga today.

They say that after the Lord Mayor’s show comes the donkey cart – but that’s enough about Eric Dier. In some ways facing Tottenham, rather than say, Burnley or Everton, may be a good thing in terms of player motivation after the physical and emotional excesses of midweek. There is nothing like a derby and local pride to restore instant focus. I’ve no doubt David Moyes will get the players up for it, although the fear must be that his team will become leggy as the game progresses, most have played the full two hour on Thursday.

It has been an inconsistently mixed bag at Tottenham since the appointment of Conte in November. It is difficult to imagine a harmonious long-term relationship between manager and chairman with obvious friction barely below the surface. Still, they are marginally better placed than West Ham at the moment in the quest for a top six finish. It is a more counterattacking unit than in the past, so it will be interesting to see how that pans out today, given it is also the Hammer’s preference. As in much of the recent past, the home side rely heavily on the partnership between Kane and Son for goals and assists. It will be West Ham’s challenge to keep them quiet.

Conte has been favouring a 3-4-3 formation and I wonder whether Moyes might decide to match him up today. Perhaps Aaron Cresswell dropping into a back three with Ryan Fredericks and Ben Johnson playing as wing backs. A front three of Said Benrahma, Michail Antonio and Fornals, and, of course, Rice and Soucek patrolling the centre of midfield. There has been much speculation about Yarmolenko starting, but I would still see him being more effective as a second half impact substitute.

After this game is an international break where hopefully as many players as possible can get a decent breather. There really is nothing to be learned for Southgate in Rice being involved in meaningless friendlies against Switzerland and the Ivory Coast. Soucek, on the other hand, will surely feature for the Czech Republic in the World Cup qualifier with Sweden.

It is a difficult match to call today. The two teams are evenly matched, and derby games are always unpredictable. It is unlikely that West Ham will experience no aftereffects from their midweek adventures. Not losing may be of utmost importance to both sides which could make for a cagey, rather than all-action, affair. A share of the spoils it is then, with a nervy 1-1 draw. COYI!

West Ham Expects: Cockney Brigade Can Roar The Hammers To Euro Victory

El Cid, King Juan Carlos, Placido Domingo, Don Quixote, Seve Ballesteros, Penelope Cruz, Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Your boys are going to take one hell of a beating …

The gold standard for European nights at Upton Park was the European Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final second leg against Eintracht Frankfurt in April 1976. The floodlights, torrential rain, a sodden, muddy pitch, and an imperious display from Trevor Brooking. Most of those elements will be missing tonight but if the crowd can generate the equivalent energy that fizzed around the old Boleyn Ground on that day, then it could be enough to push the Hammers past Sevilla tonight. The Twelfth Man, your time has come!

It is depressing to have to drag up a match from 46 years ago to illustrate how special these nights can be. But it was a game that those lucky enough to experience will never forget. In an otherwise erratic and disappointing 1975/76 season, West Ham were top of the league after fifteen games in early November. They were still a respectable sixth place at Christmas, but by the end of the season had plummeted to eighteenth out of twenty-two. From topping the league, they lost seventeen of the final twenty-seven games, winning just four times.

Yet the European adventure told a different story. The quarter final had already seen a stirring comeback against Den Haag, overturning a 4-2 deficit from the first leg to win 3-1 in the second and go through on away goals. In the semi-final, the Hammers had lost 2-1 in Germany but again triumphed 3-1 in the return game to win 4-3 on aggregate. Following an exciting but goalless first-half, West Ham raced into 3 goal lead with two goals from Brooking and one from Keith Robson. True to form the Hammers then sat back, conceded a late goal and were forced to endure a customary heart stopping final few minutes. Nothing changes!

It’s a shame that the Sevilla game hasn’t come later in the competition but it promises to be cup football at its best. A delicately balanced tie with all the ingredients for a memorable night of action. Maybe people will still be reminiscing about tonight in the year 2068. And maybe, West Ham will have signed a new striker by then!

Most of the pre-match speculation will centre on the fitness of the three recently injured players – Michail Antonio, Aaron Cresswell and Jarrod Bowen. Reports from the usual unreliable journalists have proved inconclusive but according to the tea leaves, Bowen is the least likely to be available. With outside chances that the other two will be able to play some part in the matchday squad.

It would be a MASSIVE blow to lose both Antonio and Bowen. Despite Andriy Yarmolenko’s emotional involvement, and fine goal, on Sunday, I wouldn’t fancy him for the whole ninety minutes. He just doesn’t have the stamina and energy to match the undoubted technical ability. I really have no confidence that Nikola Vlasic might adequately share the striker burden with Yarmolenko, as some reports have suggested. With the only other option being the untried Sonny Perkins, I appeal to the footballing gods that Antonio is able to play at least a half.

Should Cresswell not make it then the obvious switch is Ben Johnson left back and Ryan Fredericks coming in on the right. I thought Fredericks did OK on Sunday but still don’t seem him as anywhere close to Johnson defensively.

The rest of the team picks itself. Kurt Zouma and Craig Dawson at the heart of defence, Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek in front of them, and an attacking midfield trio of Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals, and Said Benrahma. Fornals and Benrahma are two players who need to step up tonight. Both were generally poor at the weekend despite their respective goals and assist. They must do better at keeping the ball and make the right passes at the right time. Too often we are left painting ourselves into congested areas.

For Sevilla, Delaney is available after serving a one match ban but his place on the suspended list is taken by Ocampos. Martial and En-Nesryi will provide the attacking threat for a side who, by their own standards, have not been in the best of form lately. Although still second in La Liga, they have won just four of their twelve, all at home. In their last six outings they have scored five and conceded only four. They are not invincible but equally not easy to break down.

For West Ham to progress in the competition will require passion, intensity, and patience – from players and supporters alike.  Sevilla may have a mean defence, but enough chances were created in Spain to have come away with a draw. We just need to make sure we take them this time and keep on plugging away. With 60,000 enthusiastic east-end voices roaring them on, it will lift the home side and intimidate the opposition. We cannot let Sevilla silence the crowd through time wasting, tactical head injuries and miscellaneous other unsporting chicanery. Stand loud and proud with the team until the final whistle.

Can we win this? Yes, we can. It is a night that can go down as one of the greatest in living memory. Get out there and enjoy it. I sense a repeat of that Eintracht Frankfurt score-line. West Ham to win 3-1 with a chance of meeting the Germans again on the road to the final.  COYI!

Sevilla, The Villa, Sevilla: West Ham Face Sticky Filling In Europa League Sandwich

Taking one game at a time comes under scrutiny as the Hammers face rampant Villa just days before Thursday’s Europa League showdown

Just under twenty months ago, Aston Villa earned a point at the London Stadium, on the final day of the 2019/20 season, to preserve their Premier League status. Defeat would have seen today’s visitors relegated on goal difference in place of Bournemouth. In a fraught and lengthy campaign West Ham finished one place and four points better off than the Villains.

The following season saw a significant improvement in the fortunes of both clubs. The Hammers finishing an unexpected sixth with 65 points, while Villa managed a creditable eleventh with 55 points. Both sides could potentially match those points tallies once the current season comes to an end.

A scan of the two teams that played in that July 2020 season finale tells very different stories. For Villa, only Mings, McGinn, and Luiz are in contention for a start today. On the other hand, the West Ham line-up shows an amazing familiarity. If it weren’t for injuries, up to eight or nine players might have featured both then and today. Since then there have been only four new arrivals who might realistically be classed as first-team regulars – Kurt Zouma, Craig Dawson, Vladimir Coufal and Said Benrahma. Arguably, only Zouma would get the starting call in a fully fit squad.

The story of West Ham’s past week has been one of missed goalscoring opportunities. With greater composure, Pablo Fornals and Manuel Lanzini should have earned at least a point at Anfield last weekend. And Nikola Vlasic and Michail Antonio were guilty of glaring misses in Seville. The Vlasic header would have brought howls of derision at a Sunday afternoon game over the park.

For all the ‘taking each game as it comes’ cliches we hear from coaches and players, I can’t believe that Thursday’s return leg with Sevilla isn’t at the forefront of everyone’s mind – even if it is unconsciously. The Europa League match is unquestionably a do-or-die affair, while there will still be another twenty-seven Premier League points to play for after today. So when push comes to shove, will that extra yard of pitch be covered, will every sinew in the body be stretched to breaking point, and will bodies be thrown on the line to make every desperate block or tackle?  It’s not as if players need to worry about playing for their places, Indeed, it is testament to the spirit that exists in the club that we see as much effort as we do when there is little fear of competition.

Although not probable, it would be understandable if David Moyes acknowledged the reality of the situation and chose to leave any key players who are not 100% on the bench. Why not give Sonny Perkins, Armstrong Oko-Flex, or Dan Chesters a start rather than two minutes at the end? Or perhaps it is a game for Mark Noble to make one last start. It would be a calculated risk, but given that Villa’s main threat comes from the attacking instincts of Coutinho, Ings and Watkins, it would be manageable.

Coutinho possesses the precise attributes that would add an extra dimension to West Ham’s game. A player who can find and create space for himself, makes good decisions, passes well and weighs in with his fair share of goals. What a difference such a player could make.

It took Villa a long time, and a change of manager, to learn how to cope without one-time talisman, Jack Grealish. A lesson there as to what can happen when you become over reliant on a single player. There have been periods of inconsistency under Gerrard’s management but his team are currently on a hot streak with three straight wins at an aggregate score of 9-0.

West Ham achieved a win double over Villa in the last campaign and would repeat that feat with a win today. Villa’s 1-0 home win in May 2015 was their only success in the last eleven meetings between the two clubs. It will be tough for the Hammers to continue that ascendency and may have to do so with a share of the spoils. COYI!

Will West Ham Reign In Spain Or Be Straight Back On The Plane?

The Hammers face a stern test with one of the toughest possible Europa League ties of the round. Can Moyes men triumph against six times winners, Sevilla?

The West Ham European adventure returns after a three month absence break and rolls into Andalusia tonight for the first leg of a make or break Europa League contest with Sevilla.

With the faint hopes of a top four finish receding by the week, the Europa League has arguably always been the Hammers best chance of glory. Sure, there are plenty of good teams left in the competition, but none are as strong as the top three that need to be overcome (or avoided) to win a domestic trophy. Who would bet against one of Manchester City, Liverpool or Chelsea lifting the FA Cup once again this year?

West Ham’s passage through the Europa League group stages was a relatively painless one. It was not the toughest of groups and qualification as winners meant sitting out the Play Off round, when Champions League flops receive their get out of gaol card. If there were hopes for an easy route to the final stages, these were spectacularly dashed when the Hammers were paired against Europa League specialists, Sevilla, in the Round of 16.

Despite a strong season in La Liga, where they are in second place, Sevilla experienced a disappointing Champions League campaign. A home win against Wolfsburg their only success, while defeats to Lille and Salzburg and three draws consigned them to a sorry third place finish. However, a 3-2 aggregate victory over Dinamo Zagreb (runners up in the Hammer’s group) in the Europa League Play Offs set up tonight’s clash. The Spaniards have famously won the competition six times, more than any other club, and along with compatriots, Barcelona, and RB Leipzig lead the bookmaker’s odds to be this year’s winners.

With the competition now entering the real knockout phase, the true spirit of cup competition, it will be interesting to see how David Moyes approaches a two-legged affair. There are sure to be elements of safety-first in Moyes plan against a side who neither score nor concede many goals. Sevilla generally boss possession and that may allow the Hammers to play to their strength of creating scoring opportunities on the break. What they must avoid is being as careless with their chances as they were in the last two games at Southampton and Liverpool.

Team selection news is good and bad. The good news being that Declan Rice will be fit enough to start; the bad that Jarrod Bowen is out, which is a big blow. I think we can assume David Moyes will be selecting his strongest possible side now we have reached this stage of the competition. This would mean Lukasz Fabianski replacing Alphonse Areola between the sticks, even though Areola had appeared in five of the six group games. There is little indication that Moyes sees the Frenchman as the long term ‘Number 1’ replacement – adding even further complication to the summer transfer business.

I understand Sevilla play a fluid 4-3-3 formation and Moyes might choose to match them up. The returning Rice joining Tomas Soucek and Manuel Lanzini in a midfield three, and either Nikola Vlasic or Said Benrahma linking up with Michail Antonio and Pablo Fornals up top – Fornals moving to the right and Vlasic/ Benrahma on the left.

Defensively it should be a familiar four of Ben Johnson, Kurt Zouma, Craig Dawson, and Aaron Cresswell. I have seen speculation of Ryan Fredericks coming in at right back, but this must have written by someone under the influence of hallucinogenics. It is unfortunate, but Fredericks has nothing to offer at this level other than a mythical pace that is rarely used to good effect. Who can see him as a better defender than Johnson?

Sevilla have a number of injury concerns and Danish midfielder Thomas Delaney is suspended having been sent off in Zagreb. They may feature Manchester United loanee, Anthony Martial, in attack.

The objective today will be to end the night with the tie still alive. A win would excellent, a draw acceptable, even a narrow defeat. But I wouldn’t fancy our chances at pulling back more than a one goal deficit at the London Stadium. The jeopardy of a finely balanced second leg cup tie under the floodlights is the stuff of legends, and long term memories.

I only know Sevilla by reputation. They will be tough opponents but, on our day, so are we. Sevilla have won just three of their last ten, so a positive result is not out of the question. Keeping the shape and taking our chances will be essential. Michail Antonio may well be a key player if he is on his game. His unconventional approach fully capable of rattling an unaccustomed defence. Let’s hope he is treated fairly by the officials. And remember, the away goals rule, originally introduced in 1965, no longer applies in this competition. COYI!

Double Trouble: West Ham Facing Daunting Trips To Liverpool And Sevilla. How Will They Fare?

Following FA Cup elimination, West Ham now face two crucial games in a week to determine if they can continue fighting on two fronts for Premier League and Europa League glory

A week is a long time in football, especially one that will have such a defining effect on the entire season. The West Ham’s week started with the high of a win against Wolves, sunk to the low of defeat in the FA Cup at Southampton, and must now rise to the challenge of a game where, historically, we rarely come away with anything more than a ticket stub and an empty pie wrapper.  

The decision by David Moyes to change formation to a back three with wing backs worked well against Wolves. It drew a much better performance from of the team and brought back a touch of the swagger that had gone missing. It was surprising how many decent chances were created against what is one of the meanest defences in the league. And to cap it off there was a fine man-of-the-match performance from Kurt Zouma to enjoy.

I do wonder, though, what might have happened had Wolves started with their strongest side and shown greater adventure. It was the strangest decision from Bruno Lage to leave all of Jimenez, Podence, and Neto on the bench for so long.

When the starting lineups were announced at St Marys it appeared history might be repeating itself in a matter of a few days. Ralph Hasenhüttl opting to field a second string while David Moyes selected nine of the eleven that had played most of the game three days earlier. It can’t have gone unnoticed that the Saints have far greater squad depth than us.

Ultimately, for the second time this season, a Southampton victory hinged on the eccentric interpretation of tussles taking place between Craig Dawson and Armando Broja inside and outside the area. On each occasions the outcome was Ward-Prowse blasting home emphatically from the spot. Disappointingly, the FA Cup years-of-hurt clock will now tick over to 43. A shame the FA don’t take a leaf out of the UEFA book and allow defeated clubs to drop down into the FA Trophy. I could fancy our chances against Needham Market in the last eight.

In the six meetings at Anfield since the Dmitri Payet inspired win in 2015 – the game that ended a 52-year drought – the Hammers have reverted meekly to type, losing (the last) four and drawing the other two. It would take something really special to disrupt that new sequence today. We are habitually reminded that Moyes has never managed a team to victory at Anfield, from seventeen previous attempts. Another record that will need to be shattered if West Ham are to register a season win double over the Merseysiders this evening.

I consider the win over Liverpool at the London Stadium in November as the Hammers finest performance of the season. Sadly, the international break intervened, and the same heights were never reached again. In previewing that game, I mentioned a grudging respect for Jurgen Klopp, but he lost me that day revealing himself as a poor and ungracious loser. Just because they missed out on a club record unbeaten run. Fortunately for him, his side have lost just one league game since.

There is little need for debate over the Hammer’s line-up. The team pretty much picks itself. Not the result of outstanding performances all round, but due to the absence of realistic alternatives. If there is to be a debate, it is whether Moyes will stick with the same formation that won at Wolves. The team did look better balanced, but we really don’t have the personnel capable of excelling in the wing-back roles. Normally, they are the ones meant to be the providing attacking width and getting behind the opposition defence. Ben Johnson is a fine defender who has the energy to get forward, but he lacks the composure to deliver when he gets there. Pablo Fornals works as hard as anyone and can show great vision with his passing, just not often enough. But he is not a wing-back and is not strong on his left foot. Square pegs in round holes.

There is a chance, I suppose, that Moyes will rest a few today with the Thrilla in Sevilla looming on the horizon. It would be a surprise to me, but it is possible. As things stand the likes of Nikola Vlasic, Alex Kral, Andriy Yarmolenko are best left on the bench. With Said Benrahma still sitting on the naughty step after last week’s outburst.

Liverpool have a few injury problems of their own and may be without Firmino, Matip, Thiago, Keita, and Jones. It is a strong squad, though, and they have plenty of attacking options to pick from: Salah, Jota, Diaz, Mane, and Origi. Read that and weep, Moysie.

The Hammers are hardly likely to register on the Oracle Cloud Win Probability for this one. The only glimmer of hope is that Liverpool won’t be sitting back and expecting us to break them down. Our twin threats of counter-attacking goals and set-pieces could cause Liverpool concerns, as they did at the London Stadium. But the game will be more about keeping Liverpool quiet and keeping their full backs occupied at the back. That will be the key to any success. COYI!

  

Two Weeks To Save The Season: West Ham’s Fateful Fortnight Begins With The Wolves At The Door

The top four dream fades by the week. Can David Moyes wake up and shake up his Hammers for the visit of in-form Wolverhampton?

Before the season started my prediction for West Ham’s finishing position in the Premier League was 10th. I felt it would be a struggle to reproduce the previous seasons success alongside a European campaign. The most probable outcome now is that the Hammers will end up somewhere between 6th and 8th. In that context the team will have exceeded my expectations.

Of course, there is still time for things to change. A few weeks ago, most were certain of Manchester City winning the title at a canter, with Norwich, Watford, and Burnley dead certs for relegation. Now, Liverpool are piling on the pressure at the top while Leeds (how did we lose to them), Brentford (how did we lose to them) and Everton are being dragged into the battle at the bottom.

For a team sitting in the top six and still in two cup competitions, there is plenty of disquiet among Hammers supporters. A combination of poor results, mediocre performances, and a shambles of a transfer window. It is easy to understand. They showed us a dream of the top four but complacency has it looking unattainable. As the song lyric by James put it: “Now I’ve swung back down again, it’s worse than it was before, if I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.

Whatever happens between now and May, the next two weeks will be pivotal to how we remember the 2021/22 season. The sequence starts with today’s match up with close rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers, then an FA Cup visit to in-form Southampton at fortress St Marys, followed by the perennially fruitless trip to title-chasing Liverpool, and rounded off by the Thrilla in Sevilla ©.

A variety of factors seem to have contributed to the West Ham slump. Individual loss of form, playing with injuries, fatigue, and opponents working us out are among the most obvious. Ultimately all come back to a ridiculously thin squad and a bench that the manager doesn’t really trust. There are just not the options for rest, freshening things up or trying something different.

I still believe that David Moyes has done a fantastic job considering the position he found us in. But just like Leeds are discovering, a change of plan is required when Plan A isn’t working. Thankfully, Moyes Plan A isn’t as bad as Bielsa’s.  

The issues with the squad should clearly have been addressed in January but weren’t. There are too many limitations to play anything other than a counter-attacking game, even if we have some fine individual players. Genuine width and pace down the flanks, the ability to go past an opponent, the basics of pass and move, a dead-ball specialist are all in short supply. Adjusting the 4-2-3-1 (which is increasingly overrun in midfield) to a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 look equally problematic. Something needs to change but nothing obvious sticks out.

Will there be any adjustments to the side that failed to impress against Newcastle? Ben Johnson in for the injured Vladimir Coufal, I would think. Possibly one of Manuel Lanzini or Pablo Fornals dropping into a midfield three with Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek. Leaving a front three of Jarrod Bowen, Michail Antonio and Said Benrahma (or Nikola Vlasic). It might improve the balance in what is likely to be a tight and cagey affair.

Wolves are in a fine run of form despite their late setback in midweek at Arsenal. Back in November, Wolves ended West Ham’s four match winning streak when Jimenez scored the only goal in an otherwise uninspiring game. In many ways, the Mexican is the ideal hold-up player in a team that score few, but concede even fewer. Manager Bruno Lage now has further options upfront with the long-awaited return of the impressive Neto providing competition for Hwang and Podence.

Nothing suggests to me that it will be anything but an afternoon of hard labour for the Hammers. Little threat to the Wolves goal was on show at Molineux other than hopeful long-range pot shots. Will it be any different today? Antonio’s customary Row Z skier, Benrahma’s curling it past the post, and Bowen hitting the bar. There is always a set piece, I suppose, and an early goal can easily change the complexion of a match.

As much as I would like to see a perfect Craig Dawson hattrick, I think this game might ending goalless. COYI!   

Bring Back That Winning Feeling: Can Moyes Liven Up Listless Hammers For Geordie Challenge

A crucial period for West Ham’s season begins with the visit of rejuvenated Newcastle United to the London Stadium. Can they see off the big spending Magpies?

A large part of winning football matches is the belief that you are going to win when you step out onto the pitch. As West Ham prepare for Saturday’s early kick-off against Newcastle, the sense is that the Hammers have lost that winning feeling, just as the Magpie’s have suddenly found it.

Last week’s draw at Leicester was a perfect example of the current apprehension at the club. In itself, a point at Leicester is no disgrace, but after taking an early lead against a side seemingly bereft of any attacking ideas, the reluctance or inability to press home the advantage was a disappointment and would ultimately cost a couple of points.

Quite what Aaron Cresswell was thinking in conceding that blatant penalty just before the break is a mystery, but it proved the ideal half team talk for the host’s manager. It came as no surprise at all when Leicester bagged their second to edge in front. Barnes had been giving Vladimir Coufal a torrid time in the second period and, not for the first time in recent weeks, Cresswell lost his man as Pereira ran in to score. Thankfully, we managed to show some character in the closing moments as Craig Dawson shouldered home a late corner.

The next two home games against Newcastle and Wolves, followed by a tricky FA Cup trip to Southampton, will now set the tone for the remainder of the season. The threadbare squad has to rediscover its spark if they are to make anything of it. Otherwise the season might fizzle out with Europe the only lifeline.

At least, we were able to watch from the sidelines as the Europa League Knockout Round got underway. There were good wins for Rangers, Sherrif and Sevilla in the first legs but the other ties remain on a knife edge. Some way to go before West Ham know their Round of 16 opponents. The Spanish sides by far the greatest threat.

A run of three successive league wins has pulled the visitors clear of the relegation places, which increasingly look to be a foregone conclusion. The cash rich Geordies were able to throw money at the problem without the usual concerns that buying a few duds, or spending on short term fixes, will hamstring them in future windows. A stark contrast to West Ham, at the other extreme, who preferred to risk a huge opportunity rather than invest on much needed reinforcements because they might be less than perfect.

No doubt, we will see Newcastle competing for honours at some point in the future, but with a whole new squad of players and after two or three managerial changes.

As things stand, David Moyes may have the fewest realistic options for team selection than any other manager in the Premier League. Reportedly, Kurt Zouma is available again after his mystery illness to is tipped to replace Issa Diop, who to be fair, put in a very good performance at the King Power.

Personally, I would prefer to see Ben Johnson replace Coufal and have no idea why Ryan Fredericks is seen as the first choice replacement at right back. Fredericks sole attribute is his pace, yet is so reluctant to use it. With a team shape that relies on the full-backs for width, none of them get forward frequently enough or far enough to be consistently effective.

Other than that, it is down to the weekly permutation of any 2 from 4 to play alongside Jarrod Bowen in attacking midfield. The Hammers did look a livelier once Said Benrahma and Nikola Vlasic replaced Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals at Leicester, but all four have both positives and clear shortcomings. Benrahma potentially offers the greater creativity and goal threat but his decision making remains woefully erratic.

By default, the out of sorts Michail Antonio must continue up front. My preferred team would be: Fabianski, Johnson, Zouma, Dawson, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Fornals, Benrahma, Antonio.

West Ham are becoming increasingly dependent of Declan Rice and Bowen, the only two candidates for Hammer of the Year. Despite their brilliance, we should not ignore how their changing roles have impacted other areas of the Moyes machine. Rice’s greater freedom showing up Tomas Soucek’s limitations once you take away his goals, despite the good defensive work he continues to offer. Bowen has been given/ taken up more central and forward positions in the most recent games. This is understandable from an attacking perspective but has reduced defensive cover on right hand side, exposing Coufal’s lack of pace to a wider audience. A couple of tweaks from the coaching side may well be necessary.

West Ham versus Newcastle games have a history of plenty of goals. Saturday’s game is likely to be no exception. In a fit of desperate optimism I take the Hammers to match their opening day success and run out 4-2 winners. COYI!

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action, Please. Can West Ham Grab The Points At Leicester?

Stuttering West Ham are still in with a shout of top four but must up their performances on the pitch if it is to be sustained

At this stage last season, West Ham were two points better off than they are now – 42 points against 40. back then, we were in the early stages of the Lingard bounce that briefly raised hopes of a top four finish, that were ultimately undone by the injury to Declan Rice. The Hammers eventually ending the season in sixth place with 65 points.  

By comparison, today’s opponents, Leicester City, were on 46 points from the same number of games (ending with 66 points) while Liverpool, who eventually finished 3rd (69 points), sat on 40 points – the same as West Ham have now. It would need a Liverpool like surge to bring Champions League football to the London Stadium – averaging at two points per game until the end of the season. With no new faces to freshen up the squad it looks a huge challenge for a side where results are currently exceeding performances.

The midweek games did, however, offer a glimmer of hope. None of the chasing pack are pulling up any trees. All are beset with inconsistency. With Manchester United also dropping points yesterday, there is still hope for the Hammers if a new head of steam can be found. As things stand, Arteta’s unpleasant Arsenal side look the most likely, but hopefully their poor discipline will let them down.

West Ham’s win over Watford was uninspiring fare. The continuing problem of few ideas when faced with a deep and disciplined defence was all too apparent. And having no game changers on a depressingly tired looking bench never fails to depress.

The winning goal had an element of luck about it, but it was telling that it came when Jarrod Bowen drifted in to a more central area. If only he could play in more than one position at the same time we would be laughing. Unfortunately, none of Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma or Nikola Vlasic truly cuts it in the creative Number 10 position. Lanzini probably the pick of the bunch.

Of course, action on the pitch was overshadowed by the continued fallout from the Kurt Zouma affair. It was a disgraceful act from Zouma (and his brother) but some of the reaction from the pundit community has been hysterical. An escalation of outrage (and hypocrisy) as to who can come up with the most draconian career ending punishment – and generate the most clicks in the process. The media will find someone else to kick soon enough. Zouma deserves to be penalised, but it must be proportionate.

Leicester’s season has been underwhelming by recent standards. Currently in the bottom half of the table, out of Europe and soundly thrashed in the FA Cup by Nottingham Forest last weekend. Although manager, Brendan Rodgers, comes across as a bit of plonker sometimes – I blame him for the excruciating phrase “in the conversation” – he is a good manager. It is ludicrous that he should be under pressure.

David Moyes cites Leicester as a model for clubs looking to break into the top six on a regular basis. But Leicester’s experience also demonstrates how difficult that is without massive financial resources. When you regularly sell top players, even if it is at a handsome profit, it relies heavily on the replacements paying off more often than not. It is very much a lottery.

Rodgers has been unlucky with injuries. The promising Fofana has been a huge miss in an otherwise shaky defence. He is also witnessing the twilight of Jamie Vardy’s career, a player who has so often been the match winner for the Foxes over the years. As we all know, strikers like that are difficult to replace.

Like West Ham, Leicester have also found it difficult in games where they are forced to take the initiative rather than relying on counter attacks. Potentially, Madison has the ability to unpick defences but he seems to have lost his way of late.

Once again, we have to say the West Ham team largely picks itself. Not due to the brilliance of performance, but down to the lack of realistic options. My predicted line-up: Fabianski, Coufal, Zouma, Dawson, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Lanzini, Benrahma, Antonio. We must hope that Michail Antonio has recovered from his Caribbean jet-lag and is ready to do his bit for the cause. It will be interesting to see whether Andriy Yarmolenko makes it to the squad after his demotion to the U23’s, and subsequent red card, in the week. Please can we have a little more imagination with the bench?

West Ham have a good recent record against Leicester, having won the last three meetings. The Foxes style suits the Hammers counter-attacking game. I am expecting a close game which the Hammers need to win to stay in the conversation for fourth place. Leicester 1 West Ham 2. COYI!