Can West Ham confirm Premier League football when Watford visit the London Stadium in a relegation six-pointer?

I was keeping an eye on the score in the Bournemouth v Leicester game the other evening on my phone. I saw that Leicester had taken a 1-0 lead and then I started to view the game on TV early in the second half to hear the commentator confirming that Leicester were cruising and that Bournemouth were devoid of ideas. Shortly after I began to watch Leicester had a goal kick. And from that moment when Schmeichel fluffed the kick I witnessed one of the greatest implosions from a football team that I have seen for a very long time. And to think that the side from the lockdown city were supposedly trying to cement a place in the Champions League next season! Their performance in that final half an hour or so was woeful. The Bournemouth victory gave them confidence for their visit to the Etihad on Wednesday, where although they were outplayed, they could easily have gained another point in their desperate fight for survival. With two games to go they will probably need to win both of them to stand any chance of staying up. But they do still have an outside chance, and their odds to be relegated eased from 1/16 to 1/12.

Earlier that day I wasn’t at all surprised that Villa picked up their first three point haul for some time by disposing of a Crystal Palace team that already seem to be on the beach. By losing the game, Palace joined Norwich as the only side to fail to pick up a single point in the last five games. I wish that we had them to play in one of our final fixtures. Villa played away at Goodison Park on Thursday evening. What a boring game of football that was that highlighted both teams weaknesses in front of goal. 24 shots between them, and only one on target each. Fortunately Everton’s late equaliser denied Villa a victory.

Both West Ham and Watford will be thankful for their victories last Saturday, which meant that the four teams realistically involved in the relegation scramble (of course Brighton are not yet mathematically safe) collected 12 points between them in the round of matches scoring 12 goals and conceding just 2. While Antonio became the first West Ham player since David Cross many years ago to score four goals in an away fixture, Watford came from behind to beat Newcastle with two penalties.

That sets it up nicely for the relegation “six-pointer” this evening. It is hard really to assess our form and you can only beat what you are up against, but to be fair Norwich were awful. We played pretty well and could have had an even more emphatic victory with more care. It was good to see Mark Noble proving what I have always believed and written about in previous articles. He is still a very good player against the lesser sides. Whilst the pace of the top teams highlights his lack of speed, he can still play an important role when we are facing sides outside the top eight or so. If selected he will be making his 500th appearance for the club, which is really quite a milestone in the modern game. He has also scored three goals in his last two appearances against tonight’s visitors.

A win for either team tonight will mean that the winning team are virtually safe barring a remarkable turnaround in the goal difference situation, and a draw may not be a bad result for both teams. Sky TV would love to be able to show a last day showdown between ourselves and Villa, but hopefully that will not happen.

Apparently we have no fresh injury concerns after the Norwich game, and both Anderson and Snodgrass have returned to training giving even more strength to the bench, not that it is usual for our manager to utilise as many substitutes as he is allowed. I fully expect him to go ahead with the same starting eleven that began the Norwich game, and if he does it will probably be the first time this season where I have correctly predicted the team! But we shall see.

We are favourites to win the game with the bookmakers, but the draw at 2/1 is as low as odds usually go for a drawn match, with many expecting that to be the convenient outcome for both sides. The correct score market has a 1-1 draw as strong favourite at 9/2. Will 35 points be enough to ensure that both teams will be playing Premier League football next season? If the game does end level then Bournemouth and Villa will need to win both of their last two games to survive to overtake ourselves and Watford if neither of the teams playing tonight fail to pick another point. A win and a draw wouldn’t be good enough as it would only take them up to 35 points, which wouldn’t be enough without a significant win to boost their goal difference. The Hornets would be the most vulnerable with an inferior goal difference to ourselves.

After tonight there will be just two games left for each of the teams still involved. Villa have a home game against a seemingly improving Arsenal side before visiting the London Stadium on the final day. Bournemouth face Southampton at home in a South Coast derby before visiting Goodison Park on the final day. Watford have two tough fixtures at home to Manchester City and then away at Arsenal. We visit Old Trafford for our penultimate game before facing Villa to conclude the longest season in history.

A win tonight will almost certainly be enough to guarantee that we remain in the top flight for the next campaign, and a draw wouldn’t be the worst result either. However I don’t expect that either team would be entirely happy if the spoils are shared, and expect both to be going all out for the win.

Can West Ham win at Carrow Road for the first time since 1973?

I can add little to my co-blogger Geoff’s summary of the midweek game at home to Burnley. I had the feeling early on that it just wasn’t going to be our day when Pope (surely England’s best custodian?) pulled off two saves in quick succession from Soucek and then Antonio. And when he used his feet to save when Haller looked bound to score with his first touch after coming on, it was confirmed in my mind that we weren’t going to score. From that point on we ran out of ideas, and we needed some new bodies on the pitch towards the end to try to salvage a point. Unfortunately our manager didn’t seem to agree. I despair sometimes at his use (non-use?) of substitutes and throwing on Ajeti with a few minutes to go was too little and much too late. Burnley are a well-drilled organised team who can retain a 1-0 lead better than most. Even with a depleted team everyone knows their jobs, and they could easily contain our attacking ideas (non-ideas?) which mainly consisted of high balls into the box for them to head away with ease.

We are fortunate that Norwich are as good as down (albeit not mathematically yet), and that neither Bournemouth or Villa can seem to win a game of football. For me, Brighton are absolutely safe (again not mathematically), so it comes down to two out of Bournemouth, Villa, Watford and ourselves to join Norwich in the Championship next season. This round of fixtures could be more important than many think.

We have a poor record away at Carrow Road which is emphasised by the fact that Pop Robson scored the winner the last time we won there. And Pop Robson is now 74 years old! He scored the winning goal in a 1-0 victory on 10 February 1973, over 47 years ago! We finished sixth that season whilst Norwich narrowly escaped relegation. The following season (1973-74) he scored again in a 2-2 draw in Norfolk. That season the Canaries finished bottom and were relegated (together with Manchester United) while we finished fifth from bottom, the same positions that the two clubs now occupy. Seventeen winless games is a shocking record, and failure to halt that poor run could be significant in the relegation tussle. As eight of the last 13 games between the sides have ended in draws, and the away side has not won any of the last 11 Premier League encounters, history would seem to be pointing us towards a drawn game, perhaps 2-2 again? Apparently Norwich are the only side in the top 5 European leagues to fail to claim a single point when they have fallen behind in a game, so scoring the first goal would be good for us. But hold on a minute, haven’t we dropped 24 points from winning positions, more than any other team in the Premier League?

Despite the teams near the bottom failing to pick up many points since the re-start, they have an opportunity with this weekend’s fixtures. Watford could win at home to Newcastle, and both Bournemouth and Villa have home games against Leicester and Palace respectively. Should they win those, and if we go down at Norwich then the cushion of safety that was beginning to appear would disappear and we would be back in trouble. That is the worst case scenario but I still don’t think we will go down even if that does happen. I’m normally very optimistic, but if it happens like that this weekend, then our last two home games against Watford and Villa will take on added significance.

After being a Tottenham and Manchester United fan the other evening (for one night only), this weekend I’ll be supporting Newcastle, Palace and Leicester. With four games to go the table shows both ourselves and Watford on 31 points (with goal differences of -19 and -22 respectively), Bournemouth on 28 (-27), and Villa on 27 (-29). Our goal difference is healthy at the moment compared to the others and effectively is worth an additional point.

Whatever happens we won’t be in the bottom three with three games to go. But with the wrong results from our viewpoint we could be by the time that we play our next game at home to Watford next Friday evening. Having said that, even if both Bournemouth and Villa win on Sunday I would like to think that they will lose in the next round of fixtures when they travel to away games at Manchester City and Everton respectively. Let’s hope that we can break the Carrow Road jinx, win comfortably, and as a result move one step closer to safety. It won’t be as easy as that and I’ll be happy with any kind of win, however ugly. Perhaps 2-1? Even a repeat of the 1973-4 2-2 scoreline would edge us a further point towards safety.

Wednesday Wonderland for West Ham, but will it be a Super Sunday at Newcastle?

Was that an enjoyable finish to a game of football or what? On Wednesday night I enjoyed the ending of a game of football more than I have done in ages. When you have supported West Ham for as long as I have (back to the late 1950s) you can probably recall so many occasions when a game of football involving our team has had a dramatic finale. And in the vast majority of those we have been left shaking our heads in disbelief as a late goal has either stopped us from winning a game, or turned a draw into a defeat. And how many times in recent years have teams broken away at pace to score an important late goal against us? Well just for once tonight it was the other way round.

How important was Andriy Yarmolenko’s goal for West Ham? That single goal turned one point into three and gave us a small cushion ahead of our close rivals in the relegation stakes. We are now three points above the drop zone with a superior goal difference over the others involved. But despite only having 29% possession and facing a talented Chelsea team, that goal and the win it produced will (I hope) give everyone at the club massive confidence for the six games to come. You only have to look at the league table and the fixtures remaining to see why bookmakers’ odds, that had us not much better than even money to be relegated before the game, have now changed dramatically. If you still think we will go down you can get odds of 7/1 or bigger, and to stay up we are now quoted at around 1/16.

For me, the whole team, including the substitutes of course, played well. The commitment of the players against a team pushing for a Champions League place was admirable. As the game was drawing to a close I was pleased with the point we were about to get, but the joy of that breakaway winner will stay with me. And fine goal that it was, especially given the importance, it wasn’t even our best goal on the night. That was our second goal. Watch it back if you get a chance. How many West Ham players touched the ball in the build-up? I think I’ve got it right in saying that every outfield player was involved. Goals such as these rarely win goal of the season competitions (that is usually reserved for dramatic overhead kicks or volleys) but for me, this was our best goal of the season. After several viewings I think I’ve got it – Fredericks to Soucek to Diop to Ogbonna to Cresswell to Lanzini to Rice to Lanzini to Rice to Fornals to Rice to Antonio (penalty?) to Fornals to Bowen and finally swept home by the tireless Antonio (my man of the match but so many in contention).

I’m pleased I don’t have to say too much about that ridiculous three and a half minute VAR fiasco where Jonathan Moss, who has been involved in so many controversial decisions against us in the past few years, once again made my blood boil. But we won the game in the end so I’ll forget it for now. Until we come across the same official.

The games come thick and fast now, so how many of our players are fit to play against Newcastle? I was a Newcastle fan the other night when they played at Bournemouth. Actually I quite like Newcastle anyway, more so than many of the other clubs in the Premier League, so even without wanting Bournemouth to lose that game, I was pleased they won so convincingly. My prediction before the resumption was for Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth to go down and I see no reason to change my mind now. The bookmakers now have those three as strong favourites to be relegated with Norwich 1/100, Bournemouth 1/8 and Villa 1/4.

Apparently three of our injured players are back in contention for selection in this game, Noble, Masuaku and Haller. Will there be any changes in the starting eleven? I’ve really no idea, although normally I like to see the same players involved in such a confidence boosting victory retained. But the Chelsea game may have taken more out of the team than we know and there is little chance for a rest prior to the game.

Perhaps Haller will be recalled to play alongside Antonio in attack? If so, whose place would he take? Despite Lanzini’s improved performance the other night, both he, and to some extent Fornals give the ball away too much for my liking. Wilshere has a habit of finding team mates when he has the ball which is a good thing. Of course Yarmalenko made a strong case in his cameo for inclusion, but perhaps a place on the bench with greater trust in bringing him on will be what will happen? In all of this Anderson seems to be the forgotten man. Is there a way back for him? Not at the moment I would suspect.

And I haven’t even mentioned Noble. Before the Chelsea game I thought it would be good for him to sit it out, and as it turned he was injured anyway. I see him playing a part in the games to come, but more often from the bench would be my thinking. Rice did an excellent job as captain, cajoling and encouraging all around him, whilst delivering another imperious performance in midfield. I’m not sure whether or not there is any chance of him still being with us next season, but by giving him the captain’s armband and telling him that the team will be built around him, might be our only remote chance of him staying. I’m afraid that the owners’ eyes might light up if a substantial offer is received for him though.

The thing about being a West Ham fan is that you are never quite sure what you are going to get from one game to another. I hope we don’t see a reaction whereby the players think that the job is done and we are safe. The intensity and commitment from the Chelsea match needs to be maintained for the rest of the campaign, and must continue at least until we are sure of playing Premier League football next season. Perhaps this game will come too soon? Newcastle, despite playing on the same evening, didn’t really have to get out of second gear to beat a poor Bournemouth side, whereas we needed to be in top gear throughout.

So what will happen? I’d like another win of course, but we may need to settle for a draw in this one. With Bournemouth playing at Manchester United, Watford at Chelsea, and Villa at Liverpool in this round of matches, I suspect that a draw might prove to be a good outcome. I’m sure Messrs. Lampard and Klopp will demand better performances from their players after the midweek defeats, and surely Manchester United will thrash Bournemouth?

What West Ham would give for a repeat of the score at Stamford Bridge earlier this season!

When we kick off at 8.15 pm on July 1st we may or may not be in the bottom three. Even if we are I stand by my assertion from my last blog article that we will not be relegated this season. Nothing that we have done on the field since the return after lockdown backs up my confidence. It is the form (or lack of it) from our rivals in the relegation stakes that makes me believe we will be OK.

Brighton (on 33 points) will almost certainly be OK thanks to their win against Arsenal and draw at Leicester. They have had (by a long way) the best results of the bottom six since resumption and still have seven games left to add to their tally. Four of their next five games look tough on paper (Man. Utd., Liverpool, Man City, and away at Southampton who have surprised me considering how poor they looked at the London Stadium shortly before the season was held up), but in between they play at Norwich, and then finish with games against Newcastle and Burnley. They should be fine.

Watford (on 28 points) now only have six games to play, two (out of their next three) of which don’t look too bad on paper at home to Norwich and Newcastle. Their toughest games should be at Chelsea and Arsenal and at home to Man. City. Of course they face us on July 15 which will be an important six-pointer. They have not looked that great so far, but I think they’ll be OK.

West Ham (on 27 points and outside the bottom three on goal difference only) will, after this home game against Chelsea (more on this later), face five teams currently in the bottom half of the table in our final six games, the only exception being the away trip to Old Trafford for the penultimate game of the season. Newcastle and Norwich (both away) plus three games at home to Burnley, Watford, and Villa are crucial games for us to pick up the necessary points for survival.

Bournemouth (also on 27 points) have a home game against Newcastle that kicks off just two and a quarter hours before our game against Chelsea. This surely is their best chance to move out of the bottom three, because their final six games will see them face Man.Utd, Spurs, Leicester, Man.City, Southampton, and Everton. I don’t see them picking up many more points from those.

Villa (also on 27 points) now only have six games to play, the first five of which are against Liverpool, Man.Utd, Palace, Everton, and Arsenal, before coming to the London Stadium on the last day of the season. Surely they won’t be collecting much from those games without a massive reversal of form.

Norwich (on 21 points) look doomed, although they won’t be the poorest team to have ever been relegated from the top flight. If they can hang on to their better players they will have a good chance of bouncing back.

So that’s my summary of what I think will happen. We won’t pull up any trees in the run-in, but if we still manage to go down now by failing to pick up enough points from the remaining games, then we will well and truly deserve it. And if we did happen to go down I would fear for our chances of bouncing back as quickly as we have done after previous relegations.

Of course we won 1-0 at Chelsea shortly before the end of 2019 in a game remembered for David Martin’s debut clean sheet, and his emotional reunion with his dad Alvin in the stands. Despite our win, we also scored another goal that was chalked off as a result of it “accidentally” touching Antonio’s arm, one of two goals denied to us this season by accidental handball both picked up by VAR. It’s a silly rule anyway in the sense that accidental handball by a defender in his own penalty area does not result in a penalty kick being awarded against him, so why are attacking teams penalised in this way? And don’t get me going about the VAR failure to spot the handball which led to Tottenham’s first goal against us!

As for team selection in this game then of course our keeper picks himself, but it will be interesting to see whether Ogbonna (who is now apparently fit) is recalled in place of Balbuena, who only looks a shadow of the player he was in his first season with us. And talking of players not at the same level as in the past, Cresswell now looks too slow, and seems to dwell on the ball in possession. It wasn’t that long ago that he won an England cap, but now he worries me, and we look especially vulnerable against teams attacking us on that flank.

Rice has been our standout player once again, and I’d like to see him line up alongside Soucek in a defensive midfield position. Of course there has been so much to admire about Mark Noble over the years, and much as I like him, the pace of the game just seems a little too quick now, especially against the top teams. He still has a part to play in this run-in but I’d like him to sit out this one.

Our attacking has been generally poor and we haven’t scored since Leap Years Day when we comprehensively put three goals past Southampton. Bowen and Antonio both scored on that day, and seem to me to be the only two attacking players who have shown any semblance of form in our last two games. Bowen continues to look impressive whilst Antonio has looked OK but is not a centre forward and certainly shouldn’t play up front on his own.

Beyond those two I don’t really know! Anderson and Lanzini have both looked so poor to me, and whilst I can see some potential in Fornals, he hasn’t looked that great in the last two games and certainly not in front of goal, spurning two excellent chances to score. Who else is there? Wilshere has apparently been very impressive in training, and should surely be given a chance to do it in games? If he could recapture some semblance of past form then there is a chance he could unlock some defences, but there must be a reason he hasn’t been given a chance yet in a team playing poorly? Yarmolenko has the highest ratio of goals to minutes played this season, but he has been inconsistent and Moyes doesn’t appear to rate him, nor does the manager seem to trust the inexperienced Xande Silva, nor Ajeti, who despite being an international footballer has not been given many minutes to prove himself.

Of course Haller apparently has a hip injury that is keeping him out. There are some scandalous conspiracy theories going around that suggest he isn’t playing because we will be selling him in the summer, and apparently one more appearance would trigger a hefty payment to Eintracht Frankfurt, the club from whom we bought him. That would be ridiculous! So my team for this game (but definitely not the manager’s selection) would be: Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Johnson; Rice, Soucek, Wilshere; Yarmolenko, Antonio, Bowen.

In the remaining games I’d like to see our manager make better use of substitutes, both in terms of who, and the timing. We are allowed to use up to five, and surely it makes sense to do so, especially if you are behind in a game?

I watched some of the FA Cup game between Leicester and Chelsea at the weekend and I was surprised at how poor Chelsea were, especially in the first half. But Lampard has laid into them deeming so many of their players’ performances unacceptable, and I would be surprised if they didn’t improve markedly when they face us. And talking of the FA Cup, an interesting fact. Teams are supposedly weakened in this competition these days, but the four semi-finalists, are four of the so-called elite six in this country, and in fact each of them has won the trophy in the last four seasons.

What do I expect from this game? Based on what I’ve seen in the last couple of games, I expect to be beaten, think that we could possibly snatch a draw, but hope for an unlikely win, the same as we managed at Stamford Bridge in November. What are the chances?

Hammers’ Limitations Exposed At Tottenham but we are still outside bottom three! Just!

I have written frequently about West Ham’s limitations and there is no need to continue with them here. We were second best to a Tottenham side that had more attacking ideas than we did, but nevertheless we were unfortunate to go behind when VAR once again failed to do its job in spotting that the ball came off an attacking arm before the unfortunate Soucek deflected the ball into his own net. Apparently our manager is in trouble for remarks he made about the VAR referee, but I find it absolutely incredible that the handball was not seen. When you think back to our game at Sheffield United and the decision that went against us there when the ball brushed Declan Rice’s arm in the build-up to an equaliser, you have to say that we haven’t had the benefit of dodgy decisions this season, despite VAR being there to correct them. The second Tottenham goal came as a result of us pushing forward when Kane broke away to score, although in all honesty, we rarely looked like scoring.

Yes the lively Bowen was unlucky with his shot that came back off the post, but for the second game running Fornals missed by a mile when he should have scored with a little composure. Antonio also managed to balloon one over the bar when leaning back as he was clear on goal. But apart from Bowen and Rice, who was once again magnificent, few of our players finished this game with much credit. The manager was also culpable in my view for the way he set us up, and his poor choices and timing of substitutions.

Yet we are still outside the bottom three. But only just! Two tough games to go against Chelsea and Manchester United, who have both resumed after lockdown in good form, but five games remaining that we can certainly get something from against Newcastle, Burnley, Norwich, Watford and a potential last day decider against Aston Villa. Three of those are at home, although in the current circumstances home advantage is not really what it was beforehand. And if we don’t get the results then of course we deserve to go down anyway.

Unlike so many on social media I don’t believe that we will be relegated. Brighton may have done enough to pull away, and their odds on being relegated are now a fairly longshot at 14/1. Norwich are 1/50 to go down and it will take a miracle for them to survive, so it looks like it will be two from Villa, Bournemouth, Watford and ourselves to join them. Despite our shortcomings, I still believe that looking at the games remaining we will have enough to save ourselves. I agree with the bookmakers in that Villa (2/9) and Bournemouth (2/5) will go down because of the difficulty of their fixtures. Our relegation odds are 11/8 and Watford are 5/2.

Liverpool were deservedly confirmed as champions today when Chelsea defeated Manchester City although it was inevitable wasn’t it? They won it with seven games to spare, although by clinching it on June 25th it must be the latest date by a long way. The race for European places is still in force which will keep some of the top teams interested in the remaining games, and I’m confident that they will all be doing their utmost to gain the necessary points. Once again the tussle to stay up will produce the most interesting football for the remainder of the season.

We will need to improve in the remaining seven games, and I believe we will. But I am afraid that next season will be another of the same unless there are radical changes at the club. And I’m not confident of that.

It’s All Coming Back To Me: Football, Controversy And West Ham

West Ham entertain Wolves at an almost deserted London Stadium. Who can possibly predict the outcome?

More than 100 days have elapsed since we last played a Premier League game. When I write these articles I like to predict the outcome. But what evidence have we got to go on? I have to admit I haven’t got a clue what to expect.

I tuned in to watch the Aston Villa v Sheffield United game on Wednesday evening. It wasn’t a football match that I would normally have any interest in viewing, but I guess I had a token interest as Villa are one of our rivals in the relegation stakes. I don’t particularly like Sheffield United, but this was a game I wanted them to win.

I juggled between watching on Sky Sports Main Event with the artificial crowd noise, and the alternative where you could hear a few shouts in the echoing stadium to see which I preferred. I had a slight preference for the crowd noise which sounded like it was straight from the FIFA computer game. Perhaps it is. Whoever operates this got rather over excited however by turning up over enthusiastic crowd noise for pathetic attempts on goal which were nowhere close.

When I switched to the lack of crowd sound, the first thing I heard was a player (I think from Sheffield United) shouting at his teammates about “flipping second balls”. And then came the defining moment of the game. The young Villa keeper was pushed into his own net. We didn’t need Hawkeye, VAR or an assistant referee or linesman to tell us that the ball had crossed the line. But inexplicably a goal was not given. I thought that perhaps Michael Oliver had accidentally put on his Mickey Mouse watch instead of the Hawkeye one? His wrist didn’t “buzz” and the keeper cleared the ball as if nothing had happened.

Apparently the goal-line sensor failed to register and Hawkeye later apologised. The seven goal-line cameras surrounding the goal were supposedly occluded by the keeper, the defenders and the post. So where was VAR when it could have stepped up to the plate? The VAR referee was possibly asleep due to the lack of any excitement in the game when he clearly needed to tell Oliver to stop the game and look at it on the monitor. And surely linesmen should use their eyes and not rely purely on technology? Social distancing went out of the window as the Blades players demanded to know why the goal was not given.

In lockdown we’ve become familiar with new technology such as Zoom. It’s a pity the technology failed us by not zooming in on the goal! Apparently it was the first time in over 9000 games that it had failed. What a joke! I couldn’t really care less about Sheffield United possibly missing out on a European place, but one of the teams at the bottom (even ourselves) could possibly be relegated on goal difference and Villa could stay up. Of course there are many dodgy decisions in the course of a season and you don’t get relegated on the strength of one of them. But if we go down by the narrowest of margins I’ll remember this game.

But enough of that, what will happen when we face Wolves? We actually have a positive historical record against them, but we have lost the most recent fixtures. Looking at the bookmakers odds, Wolves are favourites to win the game, based I suppose on the season to date, but the favourite in the correct score market is the one that I’ll predict, and that is a 1-1 draw. I have to admit that I have nothing really to go on but a point wouldn’t be the worst outcome for us in this first game back, although naturally I’d prefer three.

One Wolves player I worry about is Adama Traore, who with his pace can cause us massive problems down the flanks. He has always had great pace but in the earlier part of his career he flattered to deceive, except when playing against us. However in more recent times he seems to have added an end product to his game and he is possibly the player we should fear. Ironically when the game was originally scheduled to be played I seem to recall he was injured.

Wolves are seventh in the league and the seventh highest scoring team. We are not far behind as far as scoring goals is concerned in tenth, but the fact that only Southampton, Norwich and Villa have conceded more goals than we have is the main reason we sit sixteenth in the table, out of the relegation zone on goal difference alone.

Current form doesn’t really apply because of the enforced break, but looking at the last five matches played by the bottom six teams, Brighton, Watford, Norwich, Bournemouth and ourselves all have four points from those games, and Villa have one. Southampton and Newcastle would appear at the moment to be out of the scrap, but I’m hoping that with some poor early results, they too can be dragged into it.

It seems that we are virtually injury-free and David Moyes has a full squad to choose from. Of course we have different rules and five substitutes can be utilised out of nine sitting suitably spaced out on the sidelines. I’ve no real idea what the starting line-up will be but it would be good to think back to the Southampton game and the attack made up of Haller, supported by Antonio and Bowen, who looked very threatening. I’m sure that Anderson will have a key role in the remaining matches, perhaps coming on later in games as teams could be tiring due to lack of match practice and the potential heat of games played in June and July. Fornals and Wilshere can also play important roles in unlocking opposing defences, and I hope that Yarmolenko can play his part too.

So here goes, I’ll predict an attacking starting line-up, although whether the manager will prefer to be more cautious I don’t know.

Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Noble; Soucek; Antonio, Haller, Bowen.

As I said earlier I’ll predict 1-1 but hope for better. In case something untoward happens and the season is curtailed early as a result it is important that we don’t lose and fall into the bottom three. This weekend, of our key rivals, Norwich have a very winnable game at home to Southampton, Watford beat Liverpool in their last home game so won’t be perturbed by facing Leicester, Brighton haven’t won for ages but are at home and face a very average looking Arsenal team, Bournemouth are at home to a possibly disinterested mid-table Palace, and Villa are also at home against Chelsea. I have written this article prior to any of those games being played so don’t know the outcome. Let’s hope that the results go our way, and we can hit the ground running.

Football Is Back. Controversy Is Back. West Ham are Back

West Ham entertain Wolves at an almost deserted London Stadium. Who can possibly predict the outcome?

More than 100 days have elapsed since we last played a Premier League game. When I write these articles I like to predict the outcome. But what evidence have we got to go on? I have to admit I haven’t got a clue what to expect.

I tuned in to watch the Aston Villa v Sheffield United game on Wednesday evening. It wasn’t a football match that I would normally have any interest in viewing, but I guess I had a token interest as Villa are one of our rivals in the relegation stakes. I don’t particularly like Sheffield United, but this was a game I wanted them to win.

I juggled between watching on Sky Sports Main Event with the artificial crowd noise, and the alternative where you could hear a few shouts in the echoing stadium to see which I preferred. I had a slight preference for the crowd noise which sounded like it was straight from the FIFA computer game. Perhaps it is. Whoever operates this got rather over excited however by turning up over enthusiastic crowd noise for pathetic attempts on goal which were nowhere close.

When I switched to the lack of crowd sound, the first thing I heard was a player (I think from Sheffield United) shouting at his teammates about “f***ing second balls”. And then came the defining moment of the game. The young Villa keeper was pushed into his own net. We didn’t need Hawkeye, VAR or an assistant referee or linesman to tell us that the ball had crossed the line. But inexplicably a goal was not given. I thought that perhaps Michael Oliver had accidentally put on his Mickey Mouse watch instead of the Hawkeye one? His wrist didn’t “buzz” and the keeper cleared the ball as if nothing had happened.

Apparently the goal-line sensor failed to register and Hawkeye later apologised. The seven goal-line cameras surrounding the goal were supposedly occluded by the keeper, the defenders and the post. So where was VAR when it could have stepped up to the plate? The VAR referee was possibly asleep due to the lack of any excitement in the game when he clearly needed to tell Oliver to stop the game and look at it on the monitor. And surely linesmen should use their eyes and not rely purely on technology? Social distancing went out of the window as the Blades players demanded to know why the goal was not given.

In lockdown we’ve become familiar with new technology such as Zoom. It’s a pity the technology failed us by not zooming in on the goal! Apparently it was the first time in over 9000 games that it had failed. What a joke! I couldn’t really care less about Sheffield United possibly missing out on a European place, but one of the teams at the bottom (even ourselves) could possibly be relegated on goal difference and Villa could stay up. Of course there are many dodgy decisions in the course of a season and you don’t get relegated on the strength of one of them. But if we go down by the narrowest of margins I’ll remember this game.

But enough of that, what will happen when we face Wolves? We actually have a positive historical record against them, but we have lost the most recent fixtures. Looking at the bookmakers odds, Wolves are favourites to win the game, based I suppose on the season to date, but the favourite in the correct score market is the one that I’ll predict, and that is a 1-1 draw. I have to admit that I have nothing really to go on but a point wouldn’t be the worst outcome for us in this first game back, although naturally I’d prefer three.

One Wolves player I worry about is Adama Traore, who with his pace can cause us massive problems down the flanks. He has always had great pace but in the earlier part of his career he flattered to deceive, except when playing against us. However in more recent times he seems to have added an end product to his game and he is possibly the player we should fear. Ironically when the game was originally scheduled to be played I seem to recall he was injured.

Wolves are seventh in the league and the seventh highest scoring team. We are not far behind as far as scoring goals is concerned in tenth, but the fact that only Southampton, Norwich and Villa have conceded more goals than we have is the main reason we sit sixteenth in the table, out of the relegation zone on goal difference alone.

Current form doesn’t really apply because of the enforced break, but looking at the last five matches played by the bottom six teams, Brighton, Watford, Norwich, Bournemouth and ourselves all have four points from those games, and Villa have one. Southampton and Newcastle would appear at the moment to be out of the scrap, but I’m hoping that with some poor early results, they too can be dragged into it.

It seems that we are virtually injury-free and David Moyes has a full squad to choose from. Of course we have different rules and five substitutes can be utilised out of nine sitting suitably spaced out on the sidelines. I’ve no real idea what the starting line-up will be but it would be good to think back to the Southampton game and the attack made up of Haller, supported by Antonio and Bowen, who looked very threatening. I’m sure that Anderson will have a key role in the remaining matches, perhaps coming on later in games as teams could be tiring due to lack of match practice and the potential heat of games played in June and July. Fornals and Wilshere can also play important roles in unlocking opposing defences, and I hope that Yarmolenko can play his part too.

So here goes, I’ll predict an attacking starting line-up, although whether the manager will prefer to be more cautious I don’t know.

Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Noble; Soucek; Antonio, Haller, Bowen.

As I said earlier I’ll predict 1-1 but hope for better. In case something untoward happens and the season is curtailed early as a result it is important that we don’t lose and fall into the bottom three. This weekend, of our key rivals, Norwich have a very winnable game at home to Southampton, Watford beat Liverpool in their last home game so won’t be perturbed by facing Leicester, Brighton haven’t won for ages but are at home and face a very average looking Arsenal team, Bournemouth are at home to a possibly disinterested mid-table Palace, and Villa are also at home against Chelsea. I have written this article prior to any of those games being played so don’t know the outcome. Let’s hope that the results go our way, and we can hit the ground running.

Football Is Back – can West Ham avoid the drop?

My last article in this blog was written on March 7, almost three months ago. We were about to face Arsenal, but I was eulogising about our performance against Southampton describing it as one of the most enjoyable visits to the London Stadium this season. The 3-1 victory was well deserved and in my opinion a fair reflection of the game despite the visitors having the lion’s share of possession which can be a very misleading statistic. As I wrote at the time, no points are awarded for having the ball; only the result counts.

I also wrote that it seems likely to me (not the boldest of predictions!) that the three relegation slots will be occupied by three of the six teams currently propping up the table. Nothing has changed there of course, although quite how the different clubs play their remaining games in empty stadiums after such a long lay-off is difficult to predict. Much may depend on the motivation of the teams that they are facing. Perhaps the ideal fixtures will be those against mid-table sides with little to play for.

One day in the future there will be a review (well there will be many reviews!) of the effect of Covid-19 on life in this country during this period (which is still a long way from being over of course), and sport will be one of the topics looked at closely. Many have criticised the decision to hold the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival in March, Liverpool’s game against Atletico Madrid, and England v Wales in the Six Nations rugby, the last major events to take place prior to the lockdown. Many feel that lockdown came too late.

Football was closed down when Mikel Arteta was tested positive for coronavirus on March 13, just a few days after our last game at Arsenal, but before the “nationwide lockdown” came into force. Football announced its own lockdown before the Government did. The official death toll in the UK at that time stood at 11. Now the figure is approaching 40,000 it is felt that it is time to resume. Many people throughout the land will lament the return of the national game, and will question the decision to bring it back. Those people who have lost love ones may not share the delight of those who cannot wait for the festival of football due to begin in a couple of weeks’ time. It is a difficult balancing act, as in so many decisions in life at the moment, and one which has its supporters on both sides of the argument.

Of course football behind closed doors is not quite the same product as when the fans, who are the lifeblood of the game, fill the stadiums every week. I share my co-blogger Geoff’s dismay at watching the German product when it got underway, although I guess we will be a little more interested when watching the team we support, despite the lack of atmosphere. Of course every game that remains in the season can be viewed on TV, with many free-to-air, a demand made by the Culture Secretary. I did read that we could use the red button to switch on artificial crowd noise generated by the broadcasters. I remain wary of that, although apparently early attempts at doing this at some foreign venues (Australian Rugby League, for example) have been reported upon favourably.

As our games come up I will resume the regular blogging of games played and previews of forthcoming ones. This far ahead I haven’t really got a clue what will happen. I made some fun predictions using a variety of differing methods in my last article, but much of that has gone out of the window now. At least we have a fit squad (although Ogbonna, Cresswell, and Antonio were late in starting, it would appear that all are now in full training) and many will be needed if the predicted muscle strain-type injuries arise with many games being played in a short period of time. We had three players sidelined by injuries when the season came to a halt, and all three (Fredericks, Yarmolenko and Wilshere) are also now back in training.

Of course, if the Premier League hadn’t restarted we would have retained our top flight status by the skin of our teeth, that is, purely on goal difference. That is because the decision has been made that three teams will be relegated, and if necessary a points per game calculation will be used. So, if anything happens between now and the restart to abandon plans to resume the season, then we are guaranteed a place in the Premier League for the season that follows.

What is worrying is that something may happen at any time once the games have restarted that could abandon the season at that point. For that reason all the clubs involved in the relegation tussle will be anxious to pick up points in the early games to ensure that they are not in the bottom three (on a points per game basis) at any time should the curtain suddenly fall.

Of course West Ham are notoriously slow starters, and therefore it is hoped that the team are ready to fire from the outset. On paper, our opening three fixtures are particularly tough. Although two of them are at “home”, the advantage of home games may perhaps be diminished by the empty stadiums. And we don’t have the best home record anyway! David Moyes has staged sessions at the London Stadium to prepare the players for playing in front of the empty stands, including full matches involving the whole squad.

In the opening three games we face Wolves, Chelsea and Tottenham who are all involved in the race to qualify for European places, so no easy games there against sides with little to play for! In addition, we also have a visit to Old Trafford in the penultimate game of the season, and they too are likely to still be involved in trying to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

We play three of our rivals that are involved in the bottom six (Norwich, Watford and Aston Villa are three of the final four games, all fighting for their lives), and just two games against sides who would appear to be comfortably mid-table, Burnley and Newcastle. Many observers may believe that Norwich are already down, and although they are red hot favourites for the drop, they still have the opportunity to save themselves with games against Watford, Southampton, Brighton, Burnley and ourselves, all potentially winnable matches. It could be that our final match of the season against Villa at the London Stadium might be crucial.

Although Brighton currently have the most points of the bottom six teams, perhaps on paper they face the toughest run-in, so it’s anybody’s guess what will happen. I’ll stick my neck out at this point and predict relegation for Norwich, Bournemouth and Villa, with Brighton finishing just above them, and Watford and ourselves pulling clear. That prediction may well change more than once as the season draws to a close!

Stay alert everyone!

Can West Ham end their run of consecutive defeats away from home?

The game against Southampton last Saturday was one of the most enjoyable visits to the London Stadium this season. The 3-1 victory was well deserved and a fair reflection of the game despite the visitors having the lion’s share of possession which can be a very misleading statistic. No points are awarded for having the ball; only the result counts. We had more shots, plus more shots on target, and this led to more goals and a very welcome three points. With some of the other teams at the foot of the table also picking up points the relegation battle is intensifying with just ten games of the season to play (Villa have eleven).

It still seems likely to me that the three relegation slots will be occupied by three of the six teams currently propping up the table, although Newcastle, who are just above the bottom half dozen, could still play a part with a poor run, especially if some of the lower teams collect more than a point a game average in the run-in.

It is at this stage of a season when you are involved in the skirmish to avoid the drop into the Championship that you start to look at the remaining fixtures for your club, and also for the others in contention, to assess your chances of staying up. I keep hearing pundits saying that West Ham have a tough set of fixtures until the end of the season so I thought I’d compare them to those of our competitors at the foot of the table.

Of course there is no scientific way to work out what will happen, and there are so many variables. But for a bit of fun the first assessment I made was to look at the current league positions of all the clubs that we still have to face and give each match a score based upon the degree of difficulty. So, for example, a fixture v Liverpool would score 1, Man. City 2 etc., down to Norwich 20. Therefore based on current league positions it would give an indicator of the difficulty of matches outstanding. This made interesting reading. The score for Villa had a proportional adjustment as they have 11 games remaining.

Newcastle 116, West Ham 111, Norwich 105, Watford 103, Brighton 83, Villa 82, Bournemouth 74.

Using this formula, it would suggest that Bournemouth, Villa and Brighton have the toughest run-in. Bournemouth and Villa already occupy relegation slots so would appear to be in the greatest danger, along with Norwich who still have points to make up. However this doesn’t take into account fixtures against teams who may be in a prominent league position but have little to play for. These may be easier games than those against clubs at the bottom fighting for their lives.

So, how many games do the bottom seven clubs have against teams who are also in the bottom seven? Are these games tougher or easier? Certainly getting three points in these games in some ways is more important because it means that the opposition (who are the key rivals) don’t get any.

Newcastle 5, West Ham 4, Norwich 3, Watford 3, Brighton 2, Villa 2, Bournemouth 1

And will the FA Cup have any influence? Both Norwich and Newcastle are still involved at this stage. Will their involvement hinder or improve their chances of avoiding the drop?

Liverpool and Manchester City are way ahead of the rest of the league, so games against those two sides might be the toughest of all. But they might not if those teams relax because of positions already certain or involvement in Europe. Newcastle, Brighton, and Bournemouth still have to face both clubs. Watford, Villa and Norwich still have an outstanding fixture against one of them, whereas West Ham don’t have to face either in their final ten games. Sometimes, fixtures against mid-table sides with little to play for are the ones that you want in the last few games of the season.

So what does all this prove? Well, nothing really I just had a look for a bit of fun. Of course, as I said there are still so many variables in the remainder of the season and I haven’t even mentioned coronavirus yet.

One interesting fact is that the bottom 7 all have away games this weekend, and I believe the following weekend they will all be at home. Based on league positions alone then Bournemouth would appear to have the hardest game at Liverpool (1st), Villa are at Leicester (3rd), Brighton are at Wolves (6th), Norwich at Sheffield United (8th), West Ham at Arsenal (10th), Watford at Palace (12th), and Newcastle at Southampton (13th). I guess that we would all be happy with one point, and any team that picks up a win would gain an important advantage over the others.

The current form table (last 5 matches) has Bournemouth 7pts, West Ham, Watford, Villa and Norwich all 4 points, Newcastle and Brighton 3 points. Newcastle and Brighton are the only teams not to have won at least one game in the last five, but conversely they have more points currently than the other 5.

Current relegation odds vary slightly from bookmaker to bookmaker, but the following are average figures. Norwich 1/12, Villa 4/7, Bournemouth 8/11, West Ham 7/4, Brighton 9/4, Watford 3/1, and Newcastle 6/1.

So, having looked through all this, what do I think will happen? Lots can happen in the weeks ahead, but my feeling at this stage is that Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth will be playing Championship football next season, and apart from those, Brighton will be very involved in the scrap to survive. In my opinion West Ham and Watford will pull away from trouble, and Newcastle probably have enough points in the bag already. But we can never be sure with our team though, can we? I’ll probably need to review my prediction soon!

Arsenal are not the team they once were and are no longer anywhere near the invincibles of a few years ago. However we should not underestimate them, as although they do have defensive frailties, they are more than capable of scoring goals. My spies tell me that Tomas Soucek has made an excellent recovery from his injured hip and is likely to play a part. Will the manager keep the same team that played so well to defeat Southampton last week? Or will he revert to a more defensive formation? We have lost our last five Premier League games away from home, so I suppose we should be grateful if we can get anything at all from this game. It’s about time we won another away game. Perhaps we can sneak it 2-1?

After collecting from a 90/1 bet on West Ham last weekend, I’ll give the bookmakers a chance to get some of their money back! The bets I quite like the look of for this game are:

West Ham to win the game – 9/2;

West Ham to win 2-1 – 16/1;

West Ham to win 2-1 with Bowen scoring the first goal as he did last week – 110/1;

West Ham to win with both teams to score with both Antonio and Bowen on the scoresheet and Ogbonna to receive a card – 150/1.

All longshots but a bit of fun to add to my enjoyment of the game (I hope!)

Not quite “must win” yet for West Ham as they face Southampton, but it will be if they don’t start picking up points soon

Two teams that gained promotion from the Championship at the same time (in the 2011-12 season) meet today. Whilst Southampton gained automatic promotion by finishing as runners-up to champions Reading, we, of course, came up the “fun way” defeating Blackpool in the play-off final at Wembley. Both clubs have consolidated within the Premier League in the seven completed seasons since that promotion and have similar records. We have finished above them on three occasions whereas they have been above us four times. Of course we have both flirted with relegation at times, although our lowest finishing position has been 13th, whereas today’s opponents have finished closer to the trap door with final positions of 14th, 16th and 17th.

Our best finishes have been 7th and twice finishing 10th, whereas Southampton had a purple patch from season 2013-14 onwards when ending up 8th, 7th, 6th and 8th in consecutive seasons. Even when we had that marvellous last season at Upton Park finishing 7th, they pipped us to end up one place and one point above us. Southampton have picked up 341 points in those 7 seasons (average 49) compared to our 334 (average 48).

If you calculate the average finishing position in those 7 campaigns then we both have identical results, showing an average of 11th. The head to head record in the period matches the all-time historical record with West Ham winning more games than our South Coast opponents. In the 15 games since promotion, West Ham have won 8 to Southampton’s 4 with 3 drawn games. We have won the last 4 meetings – until then the records were equally matched. The record when we have been the home side reads won 5 and lost 2 in 7 meetings, scoring 16 goals and conceding 9.

After a few games this season it looked like we were going to overtake Southampton in the comparisons since promotion. We started the season well and Southampton were languishing close to the bottom. However our form had slumped by the time we visited Southampton a few days before Christmas, and both managers were under pressure. On that day we won 1-0 with a goal from Sebastien Haller to relieve the pressure building on Manuel Pellegrini, whereas our opponents remained in the relegation zone.

But following that day Southampton’s season took off collecting 16 points from the next seven games to climb into the top half of the table. They haven’t kept up that pace in the last few games, but nevertheless they sit in a comfortable 12th place in the table on 34 points, 10 clear of ourselves – of course we are in the danger zone in 18th.

We are at that stage of the season now with just eleven games to go when games such as these are almost “must win” fixtures for us. It is not quite critical yet, and a win would see us leapfrog Aston Villa (who play in the Carabao Cup Final this weekend), and could see us move above Bournemouth if they fail to beat an out of form Chelsea side. That would be a boost.

There are currently 5 teams that are not averaging a point a game, and Brighton in addition are just above that figure. It seems likely that the three relegated teams will come from those six unless one of the teams immediately above has a disastrous run (similar to the one we have had!). 37 or 38 points could mean safety and that would probably mean four wins and a couple of draws. There are no guarantees of course but that might be enough. It’s sad though isn’t it when a season that started brightly has come to this. My prediction at this point sees us escaping the drop with Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth going down. But in reality, all of the bottom six teams have a number of difficult games, and it could be very different.

Bookmakers generally have 7 clubs in the mix for relegation, with current odds of about 1/20 Norwich (virtually already down), Villa 8/13, Bournemouth 10/11, West Ham 5/4, Watford 7/5, Brighton 11/2, Newcastle 6/1.

Even Brighton supporters, despite their points cushion at the moment, cannot feel comfortable, especially if they fail to beat Palace tomorrow, as their March and April fixtures are against Wolves, Arsenal, Leicester, Man United, Norwich, Liverpool, and Man City.

We can take heart from our visit to Anfield even though we took no points. Despite the obvious gulf in class we came closer to defeating them than most teams have this season in the Premier League. It’s a shame that our usual saviour Fabianski chose the game to have possibly his worst outing since joining us. He was obviously at fault for the second goal, and didn’t cover himself in glory for the other two either. But that’s water under the bridge now, so let us hope that normal goalkeeping service is resumed today.

I wonder what team we will see today. My selection would be:

Fabianski; Ngakia, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Snodgrass; Fornals, Anderson, Bowen; Antonio.

I am not sure Noble is up to two games in close succession and have gone for Snodgrass in a central midfield role for this game, with his dead ball delivery an important factor in my choice. Such a shame about the injury to Soucek – I thought he was looking like exactly the player we needed in midfield. I doubt that Mr Moyes will agree with my choice, but we can all play football manager when it comes to team selection.

I started this article by talking about the relative merits of the two clubs since promotion in 2012. In our first meeting in the Premier League following promotion, we comfortably beat Southampton 4-1 with a couple of goals from Mark Noble, one from Kevin Nolan, and a mazy dribble and finish from Modibo Maiga (remember him?). Adam Lallana scored for the Saints. If you go back to the very first meeting between the two teams at our ground in April 1900, the score that day was Thames Ironworks 4 Southampton 1.

What chance a repeat of the 4-1 win today? We’ll all be going home happy if we win by any score.