The Road (To Europe) Is Long, With A Many A Winding Turn ….

That Leeds us to who knows where, who knows where. Are we strong, strong enough to carry it off? He ain’t Revie, he’s Bielsa!

In a season notable for its fixture congestion, it is something of a luxury to go a whole nine days without a game. In bygone days it would have been enough for Fat Sam to whisk the squad off for a warm weather jolly to Dubai, but the more pragmatic David Moyes will have wanted to put the break to better use. Recharging the batteries and retuning the engine for what could well be an interesting climax to an unusual campaign.

Since West Ham were squeezed out by Manchester City, despite a spirited and admirable display that was worthy of a point, the majority of Premier League clubs have played three times, resulting in the Hammers slipping from 4th to 7th in the standings. For a while it looked like other results were being kind to us, but recent wins for Manchester United, Leicester, Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham have seen them putting points on the board at our expense. As an anxious supporter, I sense this may have posed a degree of added pressure to tonight’s performance, but hopefully the dressing room has an in-built immunity to such transient concerns.

With one or two games in hand over those above us (apart from Everton) the competition for a top six place remains open and up for grabs. There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns before the fat lady sings come the end of May. There are also an intriguing number of head-to-head games still to come between the interested parties – starting with Chelsea vs Everton, scheduled to end in a 1-0 home win immediately before our game kicks-off tonight. More gushing acclaim for Tuchel, the latest football media darling.

Where will it lead to, who knows where? My best guess is that a further twenty-one points would be the minimum requirement for West Ham to be in with a shout of a top four finish, it would certainly secure top six. Seven wins or six wins and three draws should do the trick. Not easy but, equally, not impossible.

How well other teams perform and avoiding injuries will also be contributing factors to the Hammer’s fate. We should all switch allegiances for European matches and hope that Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Liverpool continue to stay involved and distracted for as long as possible.

Despite Leicester’s win at the weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me if they fell away given their spate of injuries and I’m still to be fully convinced by Everton. That the Hammers remain ‘part of the conversation’ (as they say these days) is nothing short of remarkable and more than I could have hoped for back in September. Who might have believed that games away at Manchester United and home to Chelsea, Leicester and Everton would be pivotal in determining European qualification rather than to avoiding relegation.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First the Hammers have to negotiate the challenge from Premier League mavericks, Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa has become something of a marmite manager among supporters – tactical genius or eccentric oddball? Whatever your opinion he has steered his side to a comfortable mid-table position in their first season back at the top, and provided plenty of entertainment along the way. They are as unpredictable as the Hammer’s sides I remember watching in the 1960s. A far cry from Revie’s Leeds of the same era. It will be interesting to see how they develop next season.

West Ham will be looking for only their second double of the season in tonight’s game. In the reverse fixture at Elland Road, Leeds attacking play was largely impotent, despite taking an early lead, and they are likely to provide a far stiffer test this time around.   

A huge difference compared with more recent seasons is the Hammer’s impressive home form, which is currently third best in the league. A win tonight would put them back into second place, above Tottenham, but still a long way behind Manchester City. A shame that it has had to be achieved in an empty stadium. Having supporters back inside for the final game on May 23 to secure a Champion’s League spot is a beguiling dream to hang on to.

The major injury concern over the past week has been the fitness of Lukasz Fabianski. His welfare is my concern. My fingers are doubly crossed for a safe return between the posts for today’s game, particularly with Darren Randolph also nursing an injury. Although Randolph is a decent enough shot stopper, he has always looked suspect in the air – evidenced, in my opinion, by his failure to claim De Bruyne’s cross that led to Manchester City’s opener the previous weekend.

Moyes has made a habit of springing the odd curve ball in recent team selections and formations. I think it will be a return to a back four tonigh with Jarrod Bowen returning in place of Ben Johnson – but perhaps the manager has other plans. 

It may be a tired pundit’s cliché but there is truth in the axiom that there are no easy games in the Premier League. Not in the sense that you can ever take it anything for granted. Leeds do not provide the compact, massed defence that has so often derailed West Ham in the past but there all action possession based style will present a very different challenge. There will be opportunity for the pace of Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard to exploit on the break but the whole team must do their bit in matching the visitor’s energy. It is reassuring that we have come to expect a positive and determined team spirit throughout the side, as well as performances above and beyond the call of duty from the likes of Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal and Craig Dawson.

For a side without a prolific goal-scorer, West Ham have a reasonable return in converting chances – but they do have an inferior goal difference to most of those above us. While it’s great to see the goals shared around, the absence of a 15 – 20 goals a year striker is an obvious vulnerability. The beauty of a natural scorer is in turning a draw into a victory and in turning the screw when you are on top, converting a 2-1 score-line into 4-1. Maybe next season, eh?

Win or draw and West Ham will be back in the top six at the end of the day. A win will see us back in fifth and should Everton manage a draw at Chelsea then it will be a good night’s work all round, with everything set up nicely for the following weekend. West Ham to win 3-1.  

Can West Ham complete the league double over Leeds for the first time in 67 years?

Arriving back from my three miles Sunday morning walk in the late winter sunshine I sat down to watch some football. West Brom v Newcastle wasn’t the most exciting prospect in advance of the game but I sat through most of it, although I was increasingly distracted by the Sunday newspapers. If there has been a more boring game of football in the Premier League this season I missed it. Here I witnessed two teams play out a game of football that was almost totally bereft of any quality. Two teams that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Championship next season if this was anything to go by. If only we could be facing Newcastle now instead of in the first game of the season.

After lunch, I was about to begin to write this article when I thought I would catch the first few minutes of the Liverpool v Fulham game. I stayed for the whole of the first half to witness an energetic and inventive Fulham side totally outplay a seemingly dispirited Liverpool team and take an interval lead with a late goal. On the evidence of that half I can easily see Fulham escape the drop that seemed inevitable just a few weeks ago. As we saw when we visited Craven Cottage recently they are a good footballing side that just lacked something in the final third. On the other hand Liverpool, after a 68 game unbeaten run at Anfield had lost five home games on the trot and this was looking as it could have been the sixth. It was hard to recognise them as the team that had played so well at the London Stadium a few weeks ago, and highlighted again to me the unnecessary (too much) respect that we gave to them in that game.

In this season of matches that just keep coming relentlessly, it seems a long time ago now that we put up such an excellent performance against the champions elect Manchester City. City are really streets ahead of all the other teams in the Premier League (and possibly Europe – we shall see), but we became another victim of their long winning run, despite matching them for shots and shots on target. We could have even ended that sequence of wins with the final move of the game which ended with Diop heading wide. City have such a depth of quality players in almost every position it would not surprise me to see them win every competition they are in this season.

While we have had this comparatively inactive period, the other teams around us hoping for a finish in a European qualifying place in the league have played, sometimes more than once, and the results have not been particularly good from our point of view. Wins for Everton, Chelsea, Leicester and Tottenham have pushed us down the table without us playing, and now we are the ones with the games in hand over most of them. So many of those wins could easily have been draws, but as often appears to be the case, luck, refereeing decisions and VAR reviews seem to favour top teams in so many games.

Tonight we face Leeds, who must be relatively pleased with their season so far, after their return to the top flight after so many years out of it. They sit comfortably in mid-table with 35 points from their 26 games, unlike the other promoted teams (Fulham and West Brom) who are involved in the relegation scrap at the bottom.

The statistics for their season so far indicate a poor side from a defensive viewpoint, with only West Brom (56), and Sheffield United (45) having conceded more league goals than Leeds (44). They have lost half (13) of their games too, with only Sheffield United (22), West Brom (16), and Newcastle (14) having lost more.

Conversely they have won 11 games, which is more than the teams below them in the league, and they are ranked fifth in goals scored (44), with only City (56), Man United (53), Leicester (48) and Liverpool (47) having found the opposition net more. The above statistics point to their dearth of draws (just 2 in their 26 games), which include no draws at all away from home, a league low unmatched by the rest of the teams. Does this mean that this game will not end in a draw, or perhaps a draw is due for them?

The game at Anfield is now over and Fulham have won the game to ensure that Brighton and Newcastle will be looking anxiously over their shoulders. The usual punditry is underway with analysis of Liverpool’s vertical decline taking precedence over the credit that should be given to Fulham for their excellent victory borne out of splendid organisation. But we get used to that. Who would have thought that with just a dozen games of the season to go we would be two points ahead of Liverpool with two games in hand?  

Looking at our head to head record against Leeds it doesn’t make for very good reading. In the last 38 years we have faced them 29 times, and only beaten them on three occasions, of which only one was at home when we won 3-0 in March 1998 (that’s 23 years ago now) with goals from Hartson, Abou and Ian Pearce. We won at Elland Road a couple of seasons later when Nigel Winterburn scored the only goal of the game. Of course in December we won at Elland Road after conceding an early penalty, when Soucek and Ogbonna scored our goals in a 2-1 win.

The last time we completed a league double over them was on the day after I was born (I am now 67!) when we beat them 5-2 at Upton Park, after winning at Elland Road earlier that season. We were both Division Two sides at the time. The last time we did a double over them in the top division goes back over 90 years. So it would be the first time for many years if we win the game this evening.

But purely based on current form we are strong favourites to win the game. Only Manchester City have collected more league points in this calendar year than we have, and we have won four of our last five home league games. Leeds on the other hand have lost three of their last four league games, and have an abysmal record in London, losing all four games in the capital this season.

But in their 13 away league games they have scored in 11 of them. In fact they have found the net 24 times away from home but conceded 27, winning six times and losing seven. The 87 goals scored in Leeds 26 games this season suggests that a goalless draw is highly unlikely, with five goals or more coming in almost a third of their matches.

Despite current form pointers suggesting a home win we are not as strong favourites with the bookmakers as you might have thought. Odds of around 21/20 for a West Ham victory look inviting, as does a West Ham win with both teams to score at 5/2. As is often the case with the bookies the favourite correct score is 1-1 despite Leeds not having drawn an away game this season, but I quite fancy 2-1 to repeat the Elland Road win (15/2) or even 3-1 (14/1). What are the chances?

 P.S. Writers Curse – of course, after extolling the virtues of Manchester City, their long winning and unbeaten runs came to an unexpected end when their nearest neighbours beat them. Just a blip I reckon that will spur them on for the rest of the season.

The Pep Stop Boys: Moyes Gets The Band Back Together To Take A Pop At City

Go West Ham! A Hammers performance that brings an end to Manchester City’s long winning streak would be always on my mind.

I was amused to read a number of West Ham supporters on social media urging David Moyes to abandoned his cautious tendencies and “have a go” at Manchester City in today’s early kick-off at the Etihad Stadium.  Now I’m not saying I know exactly what they mean by having a go but if it involves taking the game to the opposition then it would be a reckless recipe for disaster – potentially straying into Ralph Hasenhüttl territory.

There is a danger that we are getting ahead of ourselves here. Moyes understands the strengths and weaknesses of his squad and the Hammers current position in the Premier League reflects that pragmatism. It is based on hard work, organisation and energy – a solid defensive shape supported by rapid counter-attacking and strength at set pieces. It works fine for me and have found myself delighted with the application and team spirit that has been demonstrated this season.

In an ideal world I would love the team to be more expansive, but that’s not where we are. We need to evolve to dominate games against the lesser sides before believing we can do it against the elite. In a game of opinions I can accept that others will see it differently, but this is not a negatively minded West Ham side in my view. It is one playing to their current strengths and acknowledging their limitations.

Much of the case for the prosecution about Moyes cautious outlook goes back to the Liverpool game. Admittedly it was not the Hammers finest recent performance, but Liverpool managed to conjure up their title winning form that day – although, ironically, they have lost all four Premier League games since then. Two weeks after beating West Ham, I sat through their visit to Leicester. Watching the game and looking at the stats afterwards, the games were almost carbon copy of each other, apart from the final score. Liverpool bossed possession 68% – 32% on both occasions, took the lead through Salah midway through the second half and were comfortably controlling the games. West Ham and Leicester completed an identical number of passes and although The Foxes had three more attempts at goal, the Hammers won four more corners and recorded a better passing accuracy. It all unravelled, though, in the final ten minutes at Leicester; the hosts equalised from a free kick and Liverpool (particularly their goalkeeper) simply went to pieces. Such are the fine margins of football which separate Rodgers’ ‘tactical genius’ from Moyes’ ‘lack of ambition’.

Of course, stats can disguise and distract us from nature and nuances of games – none more so than the possession statistic, which is pointless if you don’t make good use of it. I think most Hammers would like to see the team retain the ball retention better and that it remains an area for improvement. Moyes said as much after last week’s win against Tottenham. As I see it, it is a combination of poor individual decision making and not committing enough people forward when possession is won.

Any win over the north London neighbours is warmly appreciated and one that cemented fourth place as well as opening up a nine-point gap over our rivals was particularly sweet. We started well (did we score too-soon?) but seemed to lose momentum with the injury to Tomas Soucek – super Tom demonstrating a level of courage rarely seen in the modern game.

At last, VAR did what it is supposed to be there for by spotting the clear and obvious howler of the linesman’s flag, even if it took an age to do so. Did they rewind back to the half time whistle in the search for an infringement?  So many goals have to be celebrated twice nowadays, and the impromptu band performance was a moment to savour. The final twenty minutes or so was squeaky bottom viewing and not good for the blood pressure. I’m sure there were many like me yelling at the TV as we kept giving the ball back to the visitors and asking them to try again. Resolute defending and good fortune eventually combined to save the day.

An Opta projected final league table in the week (apparently based on running thousands of simulations) showed West Ham finishing in 7th place on 61 points – we had fallen below Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham in their findings. To be honest, I would be a shade disappointed if we finish outside the top six now, despite starting the season hoping for anything better than 17th. I’ll admit to being one of those who were predicting nul points by the end of October. It is said we have a tough run-in, but in fact the remaining fixtures work out as six from the top ten and seven from the bottom ten. I remain hopeful.

Playing each of the top three in the next six games does constitute a tough run, however. And none come tougher than away to Manchester City, who after a sluggish start have become an irresistible force – will West Ham represent the immovable object? . Guardiola has hit upon a plan B that has reined in their former free scoring flamboyance, but tightened up the vulnerable defence significantly. He is an exceptional manager, but one with the luxury of the world’s most expensively assembled (by some distance) squad at his disposal. A squad that includes eleven players costing more than £40 million. Buy a pair of expensive duds at City and it is written off as an accounting error. Do so at West Ham and it stymies the club for years to come.

The only sensible approach today is to constrain and frustrate City, much as West Ham did at the London Stadium back in October, a game that might have been won had the clear and obvious penalty (for a foul on Michail Antonio) been awarded. City are a different proposition these days and it will be a tall order to maintain concentration and resist the relentless City probing throughout ninety minutes. Not going out all guns blazing isn’t the same as not trying to win. On the rare occasions that City have lost at home in the league in the past few seasons it has been the result of a smash and grab mugging. That is the Hammers task today.

On the balance of probabilities West Ham will lose this game nine times out of ten (if not more often) due to the inequality of resources. It is not a game that will define the rest of the season but a moral sapping heavy defeat from a gung-ho approach could do.

It would be a massive achievement to be the side that manages to put a stop to the Manchester City juggernaut. It is implausible to predict a victory but maybe, just maybe, the Hammers can plunder an unlikely draw. As Pep might say (if he were Portuguese) “Se a vida é” – That’s the Way Life Is.  COYI!

Can West Ham end City’s Winning Run?

I’ve been watching West Ham for more than 60 years and throughout that time I have often been able to witness some excellent attacking football. Not always of course, but at times we have had some great teams going forward, some brilliant goalscorers, and many skilful midfielders. During that time defending has never been our forte despite boasting some super defenders, with perhaps Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds being the pick. This season has been a revelation in that respect, and David Moyes plus his coaching staff must take great credit in producing a group of players that are highly organised and know their jobs when it comes to defending as a whole team.

The bargain recruits, Coufal and Dawson, have fitted in magnificently with Ogbonna and Cresswell, who are both having arguably their best season at the club. Diop and Balbuena have both come into the centre back positions when called upon, and Johnson is beginning to show what a fine player he may become. Fredericks doesn’t get a good press with many of our supporters, and whilst I can understand that in some ways, I believe he has plenty to offer as a squad player, with many underestimating how important he was when used as an auxiliary full back to help Coufal in taming Grealish. If he could add better touch to his undoubted pace he could yet offer a lot.

Moyes is building a team with power and pace, and it is unusual for us to be able to boast the best record in the top flight for goals scored from set pieces. It is even more unusual to see us at the top of the charts when it comes to defending set pieces, and great credit must go to the coaching staff for this too. That is why it was particularly surprising to concede a goal headed in directly from a corner scored by Moura of Tottenham last weekend, a player not noted for his aerial ability.

Nonetheless we defended well against the second half Tottenham onslaught, rode our luck a couple of times, and moved into fourth position, and a Champions League place, following our 2-1 win. I still have to pinch myself when I look at the league table, especially after we lost the first couple of games of the season. But with just 13 games to go we are in a strong position to finish higher in the table than any of us would have dreamt of just six months ago.

The next few games will probably hold the key to our eventual finishing position with a tough run of fixtures in March and April being followed by an easier (on paper) May. And it doesn’t come any tougher than this game against Manchester City, who are by far the best team in England at the moment, and likely to go a long way in the Champions League – they are currently 9/4 favourites to come out on top in that competition, with perhaps the only real threats coming from Bayern and PSG.

There seems little doubt that they will win the Premier League as they are now ten points clear in that, as well as being able to boast nineteen straight wins in all competitions. Can we stop them from making it twenty? Quite probably not as they play at a level beyond all other teams in the league at the present time. But it is probably as good a time to play them as any.  I’ll be looking for us to put up a strong performance. Our final finishing position will not depend on this result, but it will be a good test to see how far we have come as this season has progressed. Hopefully our defensive unit will show how difficult we are to beat, and perhaps we could come out of the game with a draw. Unlikely I know, but let’s hope we can snatch a point.

If you think we can you can get odds of about 5/1. An unlikely victory is priced at around 12/1. City are 1/4 which is not as short as they often are to win home games. I’ve done pretty well in recent times with my score predictions in West Ham games, with the 2-1 win last weekend another to add to my collection. For this game I’m going for a goalless draw. The odds on that happening are around 16/1. A win would be great but I can’t see that outcome.

City had won ten consecutive games against us before we held them 1-1 in the reverse fixture early in the season. So we do have form when it comes to disrupting their winning runs. Like Tottenham last week they had a European fixture in midweek before facing us, although with the depth and strength of their squad I can’t see this inconveniencing them too much. There have been a few 0-0 draws in league games between the two teams in history but all happened at Upton Park. It has never happened before in a league game where Manchester City are at home to us. But there’s always a first time isn’t there? What are the chances?  

Can West Ham Maintain Hopes of European Qualification?

I was interested to see Jose Mourinho’s thoughts ahead of our derby game at home to our North London neighbours today. In one observation he suggested that the relative positions of West Ham and Tottenham will not be the same at the end of the season as they are now. Of course everyone takes this to mean that he believes they will improve their league position whereas we will falter. But perhaps he thinks we will move up further in the table while they will plunge lower? No, I don’t think he meant that but it’s always interesting to read how his remarks are interpreted as it is not always clear exactly what he means.

He was certainly getting his excuses in early in the event of West Ham winning the game by suggesting that we have a distinct advantage by not being involved in Europe. We’ve had a week to prepare the team, to work on tactics for our next game, for injuries to heal, for players to rest, for the fatigue induced by a congested fixture list to diminish. His team however had to play on Thursday evening giving them little time to prepare and recover. He did concede that we’ve done well so far, but he certainly seemed to suggest that we won’t keep it up for another 14 games. Time will tell. He may be right.

But if you study recent form everything points to an optimistic outcome for the Hammers this lunchtime. Tottenham may have the edge when you look back over history of fixtures between the clubs that goes back to the nineteenth century, but based on the last few weeks we would certainly hope to come out on top.

In the season to date we already have 42 points which is our best tally in the top flight after 24 games for 35 years, which takes us back to that great campaign of 1985-86 (we had 48 at the same stage) when we finished third, and came as close as we ever have to being champions. Already we have surpassed our total points for the whole of last season by three points and there are still 14 games to go.

Recent form is even more impressive. Looking at the last five games only, we have 10 points to Tottenham’s 3. In fact in our last 10 Premier league games we have won six, drawn three, and lost just once (to Liverpool).

Bookmakers are not sure which way this game will go. Both teams are favourites with differing firms and are on offer at around 13/8 to win the game with the draw at 9/4. Of course the first meeting this season ended up 3-3 with our amazing comeback in the final nine minutes. The odds are 55/1 for a repeat of that scoreline, or if you fancy that score with Lanzini scoring the last goal of the game again then you can get 350/1. Or how about our new penalty taker (Rice) scoring a last minute penalty to force a 3-3 draw at 500/1?

I wonder what formation we will start with in this game? I just hope we remember that we need to counter the pace of Son who I believe is their most dangerous player. I wonder if the manager will consider using Fredericks in the same way that he used him to help Coufal to nullify Grealish in the Aston Villa game? Or perhaps Johnson who has looked good in recent games? If Antonio is fit then he will undoubtedly play but who will be the other attacking players? Lingard will almost certainly be one of them but he’ll also be considering Bowen, Benrahma, Lanzini, Noble and Fornals for probably one or possibly two starting places.

I am hoping that David Moyes can be successful against Mourinho for the first time in about fifteen attempts. It will be close. A draw is on the cards but I’ll go for a 2-1 Hammers win with Rice scoring the last goal of the game. That is on offer at around 85/1. Following Liverpool’s defeat to Everton and Chelsea’s draw with Southampton yesterday we can move into fourth place in the table two points clear of Chelsea if we can win today. What are the chances?  

Mind The Gap – West Ham Target Nine Point Lead Over Fast Fading Tottenham

It may be tougher at the bottom, but success can bring its own anxieties as confounded Hammer’s fans continue to pinch themselves over phenomenal season.

I have found myself just recently sitting at the computer and staring at the Premier League table for many minutes at a time. Can it really be true? Last season’s ragged and sorry strugglers are loud and proud in fifth position with twenty-four games already played? With a chance (even if it is an outside one) of European qualification? Surely, it’s just a dream?

It should be time to enjoy the moment, but too many years of bad experience won’t let me shake off the feeling that it can’t possibly to last. I get that uneasy feeling whenever things are going well that it’s bound to be followed by something bad happening. It’s a symptom, apparently, of a condition known as cherophobia – although, technically, that is the fear of being happy, which is certainly not true in my case. I couldn’t be more happier if West Ham suddenly embarked on a momentous fourteen game winning streak between now and the end of the season.

The holy grail would undoubtedly be gatecrashing the Champion’s League places. Although quite how a shoestring squad such as ours could possibly negotiate a CL campaign would defy the greatest minds. In an average year, a total of seventy-one points are needed to bag a CL spot – a target that would require the Hammers to up their points per game tally from 1.75 to just over 2 in the remaining games. Sounds like a tall order, but, of course, it depends equally on how other team’s fare. Qualification with sixty-six points has been known in the past.

As football fans, we are never fully satisfied. A circumstance that led me to ponder those what-if moments that have denied us an even greater points haul by now. (For the purposes of this exercise, I will conveniently ignore any instances where the rub of the green actually went our way.) What-if the incompetent officials had noticed the clearance by the Manchester United keeper had gone 10 yards out of play? What-if a few of those fifteen attempts that hit the woodwork had bounced back into the net? What-if the blatant penalty for the foul on Michail Antonio against Manchester City at 1-0 up had been rightfully given? What-if we had started the comeback against Tottenham five minutes earlier and won 4-3?

That brings us nicely to this week’s opponents, and a game where anticipation anxiety is typically at its highest. A contest where you would be tempted to sell at least a small part of your soul in exchange for a positive result. A West Ham win would open up a nine point gap over the one-time north London giants, while injecting ever greater turmoil onto the chaotic reign of Jose Mourinho. The replacement of Pochettino by Mourinho is now looking as inspired as sacking Harry and bringing in Roeder was. The spirit and verve that once typified Pochettino’s Spurs has been thoroughly exorcised to a point where they now rely totally on the goals and assists from Son and Kane. Still a threat but a far more predictable one.

Something that has surprised me with David Moyes in recent games is his willingness to play around with formations and personnel. Even though some of this was forced upon him by injuries and availability, it did demonstrate a greater tactical nous then we might give him credit for. Manager and team have grown in confidence together.

Although Monday night’s game did end with a routine win, the changes against Sheffield United did illustrate that tinkering can sometimes expose hidden weaknesses – like a man uprating the power of his car engine but not upgrading the brakes and suspension at the same time. With Jarrod Bowen occupied elsewhere he was not available to support Vladimir Coufal. As a result Coufal looked unusually exposed at times, allowing the visitors to get in more crosses than might have been comfortable. It was also no surprise that an opponent with a mainly aerial threat would look to isolate Aaron Cresswell as part of back three. A team with more clinical finishers than the Blades (Harry Kane, for example) might well have made a lot more of the headed opportunities that presented themselves.

The Hammers line-up tomorrow will again hinge on the fitness of Antonio. All indications in the media are that he is available and raring to go. His inclusion would see a return to the favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with a toss up between Said Benrahma or Manuel Lanzini as to who partners Jesse Lingard and Bowen in the ‘3’. This would mean an unfortunate demotion to the bench for Ben Johnson who is rapidly becoming a very fine footballer, both defending and going forward, even playing on the wrong foot.

Tottenham will be without several minor players but may welcome back the unsettled Kane. Watch out for wind assisted tumbles in the penalty area.

West Ham have a below average record this season in London derbies – a return of just nine points from seven games played. The game will be a big chance to correct this and give a boost to the pursuit of finishing as top London club for the first time since 1985/86. If the Hammers are to win they must avoid getting caught by a slow start as they did in the return fixture back in October. Big performances will be needed from the likes of Craig Dawson, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Lingard and Antonio, but if they are the scene will be set for another famous victory.

I mentioned earlier the anxiety brought about by cherophobia. This should not, of course, be confused with chorophobia which is, in fact, the fear of dancing. Should my prediction of an impressive 3-1 West Ham victory prove correct, they’ll be dancing in streets of East London tomorrow afternoon.   

West Ham, Sheffield United, Tevezgate, the Icelandic Consortium, and the Great Escape – Memories of 2006-2007

Do you remember season 2006-2007? Of course you do – all Hammers fans can recall the season of the “Great Escape” and one that will go down in history as one of the most bizarre, and there have been a few of those. The final game of the previous campaign had been in Cardiff where we were massively unlucky to lose one of the great FA Cup finals on penalties. We had also finished ninth in the Premier League in our first season back in the top flight after promotion from the Championship.

We were confident that the club could build on that, and also shocked to learn that we had signed two top class Argentinian footballers in Mascherano and Tevez, potentially one of the biggest coups in our transfer history. Little did we know at the time that the signings, particularly that of Tevez, would lead to controversy and repercussions that would haunt us for many years to come.

The season had begun well enough with a win and a draw which put us top of the league on the evening of Tuesday 22 August. A defeat at Liverpool followed by a home draw against Villa gave us five points from four games, and Bobby Zamora had scored five of our six goals. Then came the introduction of the Argentinians into the team, and a disastrous run of games where we lost eight times in a row, scoring just once in those fixtures, a 2-1 defeat at Chesterfield in the League Cup. In that time we were dumped out of the UEFA Cup by Palermo of Italy, and tumbled to 19th in the table, to begin a relegation fight that would last until the end of the season.

The terrible run continued until the end of the year. After we had scored six goals in our first four games, we then only scored six more league goals in the rest of 2006. Zamora didn’t score any of them despite playing in most of the games. We did manage four wins in that time, three with the only goal of the game. In the middle of that run of games was a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United in November, which was the last time that we managed to beat them before the 1-0 victory at Bramall Lane this season, almost 14 years to the day later. Hayden Mullins scored the goal, one of just a handful he scored in his time here.

Off the field plenty was happening too. In November the board accepted an £85 million takeover by an Icelandic Bank headed by Eggert Magnusson, then shortly afterwards, following three successive defeats with no goals scored and eight conceded, culminating in a 4-0 loss at Bolton, manager Alan Pardew was sacked and former player Alan Curbishley was appointed. His first game in charge was a 1-0 victory over Manchester United (the eventual champions) at Upton Park, but we only scored once more before the end of the year and only collected one point from a 0-0 draw at Craven Cottage.

2007 began therefore with the team in the bottom three and only six league goals from the last 17 matches; relegation form for sure. Surely we could only improve from here! On 1st January we travelled to Reading and were humbled 6-0. By the time we faced Tottenham at Upton Park on March 4th Curbishley had still only had the one league win (in his first game). The 4-3 defeat to our North London neighbours dropped us to the bottom of the league and only a miraculous turnaround would save us now. Tevez actually scored his first goal for us in the Spurs game (from a free kick) – it was his 20th appearance!

At this point there were just nine games of the season left. We had only won 5 out of 29 at this point; surely relegation was just a formality. Our survival hopes were boosted with wins over Blackburn and Middlesbrough (with goals in each game for Tevez and Zamora), before a magnificent 1-0 win at Arsenal with Zamora scoring for the fourth game in a row (just as he had at the beginning of the season). We then went to Bramall Lane and a poor performance saw us lose 3-0 to one of our relegation rivals. We followed this with a 4-1 loss at Upton Park to Chelsea, and with just four games left we looked to be down.

But a nervous 1-0 win over Everton, followed by victories over Wigan (3-0) and Bolton (3-1), meant that we travelled to Old Trafford to face the champions Manchester United, probably needing an unlikely win to retain top flight status. Of course we did so thanks to a Tevez goal and the great escape had been achieved. Sheffield United went down but they later claimed that third party rules had been broken by our signing of Tevez. They claimed that he had been instrumental in us avoiding relegation while they were relegated, despite the fact that it took him 20 games to score a goal. He scored just seven goals in his 26 league appearances for us, but in the end we had to pay Sheffield United over £30 million in compensation in instalments.

After an excellent first season back last year when they were the surprise team of the Premier League, Sheffield United appear to have been found out this time around, and will need to better our Great Escape of all those years ago to avoid dropping into the Championship. They go into this game at the very bottom, with just three wins and eleven points from 23 games, 14 points adrift of safety. It seems inconceivable that any of the bottom three can possibly escape, but that does not mean that games against them are gimmes as we found when facing Fulham recently.

Our lack of alternative striking options to Antonio is now a cause for concern, although I never thought that Yarmolenko could possibly play in the lone striker role anyway. His performance at Old Trafford seemed to prove that and his injury now means that he is likely to be unavailable for some time. If Antonio is not available for any games from now then we will go into those matches without a recognised striker, and perhaps we will start a trend with Bowen, Benrahma and Lingard playing as three false nines at the same time interchanging at the top of the pitch. It seems a shame that our push for a top seven finish (or higher) is likely to be halted by a lack of foresight in investment of strikers.

For my lockdown treat today I have been having a look at the league table and noting how unusual the season is in that the majority of teams have better away records than home ones. Of the top 11 teams, only Manchester City and Liverpool have won more games at home than on their travels. Our record is interesting and for lovers of symmetry wouldn’t it be good if we could beat Sheffield United by two goals to nil? That would mean that our home and away records to date would be exactly the same; played 12, won 6, drawn 3, lost 3, goals scored 18, goals conceded 14, points 21. Bookmakers will only give me around a measly 7/1 for that scoreline, despite our dearth of striking options.

I’d be happy with a win of any kind, which presuming Chelsea beat Newcastle later, will leave us in fifth place, relegating champions Liverpool to sixth, and just four points behind second. Who would have believed that we could possibly be in this position when the season started? So don’t let us down West Ham. A win please, preferably by 2-0. What are the chances?

Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, We Don’t Have A Striker, Will A Midfielder Do?

High flying West Ham take on an apparently doomed Sheffield United in the latest test of their top six ambitions

It seems inconceivable that any of the Premier League’s current bottom three have the remotest hope of escaping relegation – even though only 60% of the season has so far been completed. Not only would it require a massive turnaround in their own form, but also a drastic collapse by one of the sides immediately ahead of them. There must come a time when even the most optimistic of squads realise that survival is a lost cause, even before it is mathematically proven. Usually, this will bring with it a consequential loss of belief and commitment on the pitch – think Norwich when they visited the London Stadium in July. Some of the mid-table teams (Crystal Palace) already look like they are planning their summer holidays.

 Despite Sheffield United sitting fourteen points from safety and being the league’s lowest scorers, I make them the least likely of the three condemned to throw in the towel. The mindset of the manager and squad will ensure that doesn’t happen, at least not yet. So another tough assignment for David Moyes and his West Ham team to negotiate as they endeavour to spend a fourth consecutive week in the top six.

If the relegation places appear nailed on, then recent form and events suggest the title is little more than a one-horse race. While each of the chasing pack performs in fits and starts, Manchester City are suddenly unstoppable. The ‘genius’ of Pep and a bottomless transfer budget have somehow managed to work their magic.

Of the teams with an eye on a European finish, West Ham and Aston Villa are the most improbable, having finished fifth and fourth bottom respectively last season. Both will be relying on a handful of key players staying fit as they attempt to get the better of Everton and Chelsea for the chance of glory.

I clearly haven’t been paying attention with Everton. In my mind they had faded badly after a promising start, and yet remain the most handily placed with a couple of games in hand over their rivals. Chelsea have embarked on a lukewarm streak since the appointment of Tuchel as manager, but in truth they have had such a benign set of fixtures that even Frank would have picked up a few points. The West Ham mission then, should they choose to accept it, is to demonstrate ever more over-achievement, teamwork and determination – and avoid picking up any unwanted injuries and suspensions. It might well come to nothing but it is a pleasant surprise to be in with a shout.

The media has been gushing over Guardiola in recent weeks and pouring effusive praise for his tactical innovation of playing without a recognised striker. Don’t they realise the Hammers have been doing that for most of the past twenty-five years. The club rarely gets the credit it deserves. Just because they failed to designate the string of hapless strikers as ‘False 9’s’. Same as the Hammers being the first side to field a ‘False 1’ by playing Roberto in goal.

Whether a striker will take the field in claret and blue on Monday night depends (as usual) on the fitness of Michail Antonio. By all accounts he is on track to be involved, but will that be as a starter or available from the bench if absolutely needed? My sneaking suspicion is that he will be held in reserve, for use in emergencies only. The crucial Tottenham game next weekend is a more probable target for him. If Antonio is absent then the troika of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma must take responsibility for providing the necessary movement and creating space for others to exploit. It sounds all good in theory, but they will need to raise their passing and decision making game if it is to be the Hammer’s Moyesiola moment.

Elsewhere, the backline will be missing Antonio Ogbonna for the first time this season. His absence leaves Craig Dawson as the mainstay of the defence – an argument that would have been laughed out of court just a few short months ago. A string of outstanding performances has proved many of us doubters wrong. At least with centre backs West Ham have Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena in reserve. Based only on media chatter I guess Diop will get the nod and a chance to show that he is more commanding in the air than we have come to expect.

Other team or position changes are unlikely, and I will be keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have to put up with Andriy Yarmolenko or Mark Noble for anything other than late cameos.

The Blades will be without several important players including Sander Berge, Jack O’Connell and George Baldock.

The game is unlikely to be a classic. The neutral might prefer to find a good book or take the opportunity to arrange their CDs into alphabetical order. The long running West Ham conundrum of how to break down a well organised defensive wall will determine the chances of success. Can the passing and movement be slick and incisive enough to find a way through and behind the Blades defence. Relying on lofted crosses and set pieces when faced with a defensive minded opponent is an unconvincing strategy. Past performances might point to a 1-0 win, courtesy of a late Tomas Soucek goal, but better is required if a serious tilt at the top six in this topsy-turvy season is to be kept alive. I know that after the event I would take a 1-0 win but we really need to see more dominant performances from the Hammers in this type of game. Hope never dies even if experience suggests it should. COYI!     

Soucek Available as Hammers Bid to Reach FA Cup Quarter Final

If you read newspapers or social media to see what happened when we played at Craven Cottage at the weekend then you wouldn’t have found out very much about the actual football played. The conditions were awful, the rain was bucketing down and the pitch was slowly deteriorating as the game went on. It reminded me of our FA Cup tie at Stockport in many respects. We were playing a side that on form we should be dominating but in many aspects we were second best. Fulham actually play some neat football, but unfortunately they are likely to go down this season because of a lack of a cutting edge in the final third. Either team could have won the game with each of our Czech imports missing headed chances whilst at the other end all the Fulham players seemed to lose composure when a half chance appeared.

The major talking point came as a result of a West Ham free kick with seconds to go, when Lee Mason (on VAR duty at Stockley Park) drew Mike Dean’s attention to the fact that Mitrovic was on the floor, looking like he’d been felled by Mike Tyson, and suggested that he should go and view the incident on the screen at the side of the pitch. After reviewing the footage 23 times (that says enough in itself that it wasn’t clear to him!) he then produced a red card. Cue astonishment all round – it was obvious to anyone who understands the game that it was accidental. There has been about 99% agreement everywhere you view or read that the decision was a wrong one, and fortunately the red card was rescinded on Monday. The only real doubt that this would be the outcome was would the panel want to overturn a second decision by (supposedly) one of the top referees in one week? But common sense won the day (sometimes it doesn’t in football) and Soucek is available to play in tonight’s game. The sad thing is that a (top!?) referee should see an incident in a different way to virtually all other observers.

We face a Manchester United side that are having a good season, lying second in the league with a very good chance of retaining a position in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League. Of course we are sixth ourselves, only one point behind Liverpool (in fourth) and should be harbouring ambitions to achieve a top four place too. But with limited attacking options and little investment from the top of the club to remedy this we are very much outsiders in this respect and that’s why I believe tonight’s game takes on added importance. To achieve a top four league finish would require consistency of performance that may be beyond us with our current squad. Excellent though we have been in so many ways this season, our best chance of glory must realistically be to emulate what we achieved in 1964, 1975 and 1980, and that is of course to win the FA Cup.

Yes, a tough fixture tonight, but if we can come out on top then that would put us into the last eight, just one game away from the semi-final, and two wins away from a final appearance at Wembley. Sitting close to the top of the Premier League, with absolutely no chance of going down with 15 games of the season to go is a position we don’t often find ourselves in, but that is where we are. That is why we should be focussing 100% on putting out our best team and trying to win the FA Cup.

As a fan I know that I’d prefer an appearance in the FA Cup final to a sixth or seventh place finish in the Premier League, which is realistically the best we are likely to achieve. Of course our owners may feel differently and prefer the idea of finishing as high as possible in the league, with an extra £2m in prize money for each incremental position achieved. If players need to be rested at any time then I’d prefer this to be for league games whilst we still have an interest in the cup. Of course I’d like to think we could achieve a top 4 finish and a visit to Wembley for the Cup Final, but that may be too much of an optimistic dream. We definitely have a better chance of winning tonight with Soucek available now, and that one piece of news might help to drive us on to achieve a shock result. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world for the team lying sixth to overcome the team in second place, but the bookmakers have decided that it would be. The Red Devils are 8/13 to win the game, whereas we are 21/5, with the draw around 16/5.

The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

MUNWHU1The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

I’m also old enough to remember an even more famous win against them in the semi-final of the cup in 1964, on our way to winning the trophy. We faced them the week before the semi-final in a league game at Upton Park. They beat us 2-0 despite resting most of their first team, including the trio of Best, Law and Charlton, whilst we had our first choice team playing. The following Saturday at Hillsborough we lined up with the same XI whereas they brought back their top guns expecting an easy victory.

That season Manchester United finished second in the league whereas we were a lowly 14th. But that didn’t stop us progressing to Wembley comfortably in that one-off game with two goals from Ronnie Boyce (seen being chased by fellow team members after scoring one of the goals in the semi-final) and another from Geoff Hurst. Boyce only scored 29 goals in 341 appearances for us but he knew about scoring important ones, as he also headed the winning goal in the final minute of the Final when we defeated Preston 3-2.

My prediction for tonight (optimistic hat on as usual) is for the game to end 1-1 after 90 minutes, 2-2 after extra time, and then for us to win 4-3 on penalties (despite our lack of penalty practice this season!). What are the chances?

Capital Punishment: Hammering More Nails Into The Cottager’s Coffin

There’s plenty to play for at either of the table as the top team in London visit the one at the bottom. Can West Ham put a further dent in Fulham’s survival chances?

I have to admit to being quite nervous about the Hammers reaction to defeat by Liverpool before they travelled to Villa Park on Wednesday night. After too many years of disappointment, my default setting, when it comes to supporting West Ham, is locked permanently at ‘fear the worst’. That they not only won, but did so with such aplomb, and with one of the most accomplished performances for some time, was mightily impressive. If courage, composure and determination is the new ‘West Ham way’, then it gets my vote!

If the previous Sunday was a reality check for the Hammers, then Wednesday was reality Czech for Villa. The two bargain signings from the Czech Republic has proved to be some of the most inspired transfer business in West Ham history.

Vladimir Coufal handed out a defensive masterclass by completely neutralising the threat of a dejected Jack Grealish. Ably assisted by the surprise inclusion of Ryan Fredericks the message was clear for all, stop Grealish and you stop Villa. Coufal has quickly become a West Ham cult hero. A tough, determined, and resolute master of the full back craft, full of running, skill and experience – and without the reckless tackles than has so often lead similar characters into troubled waters.

Tomas Soucek just gets better and better. Not only part of one of the best defensive midfield partnerships in the league, but also superb in the air at both ends and continuing to weigh in with priceless goals. The man never stops running. Even for the second West Ham goal – a rapid Hammer’s counter-attack – it was Soucek who turned up right on top of the keeper in case the ball was spilled from Jesse Lingard’s shot.  There should also have been a first West Ham penalty of the season when he was clearly (and obviously) tripped in the area by McGinn during the first half. Perhaps VAR had popped out to the toilet.

In truth, there were excellent performance right throughout the team even though, not surprisingly, it was Lingard who grabbed most of the plaudits and headlines with his two-goal debut performance – a first for the Hammers since Tricky Trev did the same against Everton in January 1998. The addition of Lingard brought a much better balance to the West Ham forward play and his level of understanding with those around him was impressive for such a new arrival. Now we wait to see whether that level of performance can be maintained.

The frenetic Premier League programme eases off after this week’s round of games as European competition starts up once again to fill the vacant midweek spots for the seven English clubs still involved. Does having longer breaks between matches offer any advantage to a team looking to sneak up on the rails?  

This weekend it is another London derby with a visit to struggling Fulham at Craven Cottage – our last away derby of the season. Many years ago, West Ham would publish the Unofficial London Championship in the matchday programme, based on the results of the derby matches. In the season to date, despite being top London club, the Hammers would only be midtable if such a competition existed, having already lost to Chelsea and Arsenal. Fulham have been defeated in all three of their home derby matches so far, and will be favourites to make it four in a row tomorrow. The Cottagers are currently on an eleven game winless run in the league and are also winless in their last nineteen top-flight London derbies – those are the kind of statistics that would worry a West Ham fan of old but things are different now ……….. aren’t they?

It does look grim for the three clubs at the bottom of the Premier League table as the teams above them start to pick up wins, appearing to leave Sheffield United, West Brom and Fulham. Of the three, it would be good to see Fulham (and Scott Parker) pull off an unlikely escape – they are, probably, the best placed to do so given current points total and relatively modest negative goal difference. As long as any revival waits another week.

It should be more of the same from West Ham as far as team selection is concerned. Most of us were surprised to see Fredericks named in the starting lineup at Villa Park, but I expect him to make way for Jarrod Bowen tomorrow – unless David Moyes feels that Bowen needs a bit of a longer rest. Other than that, it should be business as usual.

The Fulham danger man will again be the industrious Lookman, although he is unlikely to be taking any more penalties. New signing Maja may make his debut for the hosts following his move from Bordeaux if Parker decides not to stick with the lumbering Mitrovic. Perhaps it’s just me, but I really don’t get what Loftus-Cheek offers. Amazing that he has ten England caps to his name.

Despite their long winless run, Fulham have drawn a good few matches – including games against Liverpool, Tottenham, and Southampton – and they have not been shipping a lot of goals of late. So we might expect the game to be a tight affair, and one where the Hammers must be alert to an early period of home pressure. West Ham are the form team, though, and should have more than enough quality to add another victory to their impressive 2021 tally. West Ham to win 2-0. COYI!