Old Kid In Town: Understudy Roberto Holds The Key To Seeing Off The Eagles And Furthering West Ham’s Ambitions

A buoyant West Ham can finish the day in the top three of the Premier League. But can stand-in keeper Roberto prove his doubters wrong and prevent panic in the Hammer’s defence?

The two elder statesmen of football management will ride their mobility scooters into the London Stadium later today as West Ham contest their first capital derby of the season.  Boasting a combined experience close to 75 years, Manuel Pellegrini and Roy Hodgson might have thought that, by this stage in their lives, they would be more likely sitting on a park bench (like bookends) reminiscing about dubbin, lace up footballs, nailed-on studs and £100 per week footballers.  Instead they will be taking charge once again of another game in the cauldron (© Sky Sports) that is Premier League football.

Crystal Palace have been rather profligate with their managers over the years with Hodgson being the 60th to fill the position (Pellegrini is West Ham’s 17th manager, by comparison).  A scan through the Selhurst Park managerial hall of shame shows many of the usual merry-go-round suspects (Bruce, Francis, Dowie, Warnock (twice), Pulis, Pardew, Allardyce) that suggests an unimaginative approach to recruitment which might represent the limits of their ambition.  The one missing name that prevents a Dinosaur Bingo full-house is that of Mark Hughes – but give it time.

It is fair to say that Hodgson has brought a degree of stability to Palace that makes them unlikely relegation candidates – even if that stability is rather dull and dependable in nature.  The cunning team strategy is to field ten plodders plus Zaha – just like when Le Tissier played for Southampton.  The stats may show that Zaha has little end product but he really doesn’t have much to work with – apart from getting into the box and going quickly to ground.  No wonder he wanted away.  If Palace were a car it would be a VW Beetle or Citroen 2CV – functional and able to chug along forever but lacking style or glamour.

West Ham by comparison are a wheeler-dealer’s custom car project. Although the old policy of collecting old parts from the breaker’s yard has been mostly abandoned, it is still some way from peak performance.  The flared wheel arches, racing seats and rear spoilers may all have been installed; but the important work of upgrading the engine and transmission has been largely overlooked.

Not that it hasn’t been an encouraging start to the season but there are nagging doubts that (given the games that we have played so far) there should be a few more points on the board if a realistic assault on the top six is to be mounted.  I guess clean sheets and unbeaten runs build confidence, but they don’t always result in the bring optimum points haul.  One win and two defeats from the drawn games against Brighton, Villa and Bournemouth would have earned exactly the same number of points.  Would a more adventurous approach have gathered a few extra?  It is no surprise that, as things stand, we are regarded in the media as a team that has enjoyed a better than expected start to the season, rather than being the team most likely to break into the top six (that being Leicester.)

Perhaps I am expecting too much. If you had asked me a few years back, then I would have been more than happy with our current situation.  We are playing a more attractive style of football and have recruited some fine talent; but I can’t help wondering whether there shouldn’t be another enterprising gear in there somewhere.

By far, the biggest talking point of the week for Hammers fans has been in digesting the news of the long term injury sustained by Lukasz Fabianski.  I knew that all those unnecessary pass-backs to the keeper would come to no good – a case of repetitive strain injury arising from all those punts upfield have taken their toll on the keeper’s hip.  Outside of the management team, there has been little confidence shown in the abilities of his replacement, Roberto.  Having confidence in the keeper is a key element of any defensive unit and if jitters are apparent they can quickly become contagious.  If too much attention is being paid to protect the keeper it will be detrimental to the entire team performance.

Roberto’s career has been as a “have gloves, will travel” itinerant. He has played 272 league games in four countries over 15 years.  He can be no Fabianski but he still needs our support.  Maybe a R-O-B-Erto chant to the old Ottowan D-I-S-C-O tune that was once use for Di Canio during his stay at Sheffield Wednesday would do the trick?

Apart from the keeper, the only other likely change should be a recall to the starting eleven for Manuel Lanzini, at the expense of Pablo Fornals.  It would be a good time for Lanzini, Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko to start creating some decent chances for the hard working Sebastien Haller.  The Palace defence will be well organised and well drilled and our creative players need to be at their sharpest to find a way through.

Yarmolenko is riding the crest of a wave at the moment and long may it continue.  He is a hard player to pin down in any particular category.  Not really a winger but playing wide on his weaker side should make him predictable but he has the sweetest left foot and rarely wastes a ball.  Perhaps he is a conundrum that also baffles opponents.

Palace will be without set-piece specialist Milivojevic through suspension while defender Sakho is out injured.  Veteran defender Cahill has relegated former West Ham pinup favourite James Tomkins to bench duty but there could be a start for wily ex-Hammer, Cheikhou Kouyate.

Making the long trip south from Northumberland with his whistle is one-time refereeing wonderkid, Michael Oliver.  Agreeing with all his decisions at VAR Central will be Paul Tierney.  I read that since Palace’s return to the Premier League they have been awarded more penalties than any side in the division (I couldn’t see how many of those had been ‘earned’ through Zaha’s tumbling act.)  During that same period, West Ham have conceded more penalties than any other team in the same league.  Make what you will of that particular omen.

Media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas both forecast a home win, by 2-0 and 3-1 respectively.  Barring defensive howlers or calamities, it is difficult to see where the visitors will find goals from, if Jordan Ayew is the best they have to offer.  The game will hinge on the Hammer’s ability to break down Palace’s stubborn resistance.  It is one of those situations where if one goes in there could be several more.  A good day to discover a killer instinct.  A 3-0 win would do for me and depending on what happens at Anfield, it could see West Ham sitting pretty in third place by the end of the day.

The Eagles visit the London Stadium. Will West Ham or Palace be Glad All Over on Saturday evening?

Oh joy of joys, once again we kick-off at what a traditional football supporter would call a non-traditional time. 5.30pm on a Saturday evening. I didn’t want to do anything on Saturday night anyway! This will be our eighth league game of the season and our fourth at home at the London Stadium. All four of our home games have started at different times. We’ve had 12.30 on a Saturday, followed by 3.00 on a Saturday, 2.00 pm on a Sunday, and now 5.30 on Saturday! That’s the price we have to pay for vast injections of money into the Premier League from Sky and BT. But as a West Ham fan of long standing I guess we don’t have too much to complain about this season; well not as far as the league games are concerned. If, after our 5-0 beating by Manchester City on the opening day of the season, we had been offered the opportunity to be facing Palace in Matchday 8, having not lost any further league games, with three wins and three draws in the next six games, and fifth place in the Premier League table, most of us would have comfortably settled for that.

And we are only denied fourth place in the table by virtue of Arsenal having scored more goals than us, as we both have an identical goal difference of +1. For us, that’s quite a turnaround after being -5 after the first game. Personally I find it refreshing to see two of the “reserved” places in the “elite six” being occupied by ourselves and Leicester, taking the places of Chelsea and Manchester United. And I’m not unhappy to see us one place above those North London neighbours with the new stadium. I do think West Ham fans need to be a touch cautious though when crowing about Tottenham on social media sites. There was the mickey taking re their exit from the Carabao Cup at the hands of Colchester which came before our poor performance and defeat at Oxford. And then after their loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League I’ve seen plenty of pictures of “Seven Up” bottles. Perhaps when we qualify to participate in the Champions League we can afford to crow more, but I guess we need to make hay while the sun shines in respect of taunting Spurs. I’m all for it really but hope it doesn’t come back to bite us again! Arsenal supporters must be enjoying it too, especially as one of their former players bagged four of the goals that sank their neighbours.

Seven games down, and only three of them at home, and our league position after each matchday has read 20, 16, 14, 7, 8, 5, 5, showing excellent progression. The performances have not always been as good as we would like, and we can definitely improve further so the outlook is good. On paper at least the next few matches are eminently winnable. Three of the next four are at home, with an away game at out of form (but still dangerous I suspect) Everton. Crystal Palace, Sheffield United and Newcastle are all teams we would expect to beat (especially at home) if we want to be considered a big team, and teams we would need to defeat if we want to continue to pursue a place in the top six.

As far as many of our fans are concerned, one big blot on our ambition is in the injury to Fabianski which is likely to keep him out for quite a while. Fans have taken to social media questioning why we let Adrian go, but it seems he wanted to go, and there’s no point in continuing with those moans. Many are also questioning whether the two back-up keepers we signed in the summer are of sufficient quality to play in the Premier League. Roberto seems to be the preferred choice to take over from Fabianski rather than David Martin, but his performances so far have not exactly earned rave reviews and many are concerned that this may be a significant stumbling block in our quest to continue our fine start to the season. He certainly moved around a lot in Spain, with visits to Portugal and Greece too, and there is some historical controversy in respect of the ownership of the economic rights of the player himself. Where have I come across that before? He has often been a second choice keeper for the teams he has played for, but having said that he has amassed over 300 senior appearances, and played for the Spanish national side at all age levels except for the full side. The West Ham crowd seem to have taken against him, but I just hope he makes some good saves early on to get the fans behind him. I’ve seen West Ham fans have issues with our goalkeeper before (Allen McKnight is the main example, but there have been others at times e.g. Ferguson, Day) and watched as the keeper visibly lost confidence and his performance suffered as a result. I just hope it doesn’t happen this time. If it all goes pear-shaped in the next few games as far as the goalkeeping position is concerned then Mario Husillos’ judgement will be called into question and perhaps the chairman will want to regain control over transfers and the Director of Football position at the club.

Palace themselves have made a decent start to the campaign with three wins, two draws and two defeats in their seven games, meaning that they are just a point below us among four clubs on 11 points. Like us they have beaten Norwich and Manchester United. In the main their games have been low scoring affairs, the exception being a 4-0 defeat away from home at the hands of Tottenham. They also lost 1-0 at Sheffield United, so the highlight of their travels was the 2-1 victory at Old Trafford. Of their six league goals scored, Van Aarholt, Townsend, Milivojevic (penalty as usual), and ‘Own Goal’ have scored one apiece and an Ayew of the Jordan variety has scored twice. AT least Milivojevic won’t be able to score a penalty this week – he is suspended.

I can recall a game early in 2016 when West Ham beat Aston Villa 2-0 (in the season they were relegated) and Jordan Ayew was sent off for inexplicably elbowing Aaron Cresswell for no apparent reason as they were waiting for a free kick to be taken. He ended up as Villa’s leading scorer that season albeit with only seven goals. I expect Cresswell (our in-form goalscorer!) is looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with him. Incredible really, two goals in two games, when he took more than 100 games for his last two.

Historically we have a positive record in head to head games against today’s visitors, and in the last four seasons we have a record against them of the kind that I don’t like, in that it is there to be broken. In the eight fixtures since the beginning of the 2015-16 season we have won four and drawn four. In last season’s game at the London Stadium just ten months ago, Palace led at half time, but we came back strongly in the second half and won the game 3-2. It was the very first time in a West Ham v Palace Premier League fixture that the team scoring the first goal went on to lose the match. We began that game less than a year ago with Hernandez and Perez up front; fortunately neither are still here. Incredibly West Ham and Palace are two of the three teams (Manchester City are the other team) that have kept three clean sheets this season.

With the bookmakers we are evens favourites to win. I expect us to be too strong for our opponents in attack. Zaha is a dangerous player but (and I hope I don’t regret writing this) I think he lacks an end product; he ought to score far more goals than he does. I’m not sure if we can retain our clean sheet record but I reckon we’ll win by two clear goals, either 2-0 or 3-1. Enjoy the game.

Seaside Shuffle: West Ham Can Coast To Victory At Bournemouth And Extend Top Six Stay

Following a disgraceful lack of interest in winning at Oxford, West Ham owe their supporters big time. A committed performance from the strongest eleven can see them return from the South Coast with three points.

You may have heard the story about the scorpion who asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung by the scorpion but is reassured by the scorpion that if it did that, they would both drown. The scorpion climbs onto the frog’s back, but midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it had stung him, to which the scorpion replies “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

This would seem to sum up West Ham and their efforts in cup games against lower league opposition.  Never mind the occasional success or the reassurances that they will treat the cups with the utmost seriousness. They just can’t help but resort to complacency and disrespect – it’s in their nature. It is difficult to take the post-match words of apology or embarrassment, from manager or players, seriously. It was not a bad day at the office, it was a case of not really caring whether we won or lost.  The shame was not in losing to Oxford United, it was in the disrespect shown to the fans, especially those that travelled.

It is back to league action today against one of the other teams who meekly surrendered their EFL Cup lace to league opponents.  The lazy reaction is to present today’s clash as one of two clubs looking to bounce back from midweek defeats.  But in the context of today’s game those games were meaningless, having been forfeited with indifference.  Both teams have enjoyed promising starts to the season – good enough, in fact, to earn the billing of an unlikely top six clash. A clear reflection that, to the money men who run the game, each additional league position offers greater value than the glory of a cup run.

There has been much debate in the media about the chances of other clubs breaking up the ‘rich six’ monopoly this year; with much of that debate focusing on the prospects of Leicester and West Ham. I saw a number of West Ham fans on social media peeved that Leicester were generally receiving a better press than the Hammers.  While you could argue that there is little to choose between their respective strongest starting elevens, the Foxes do look to have greater strength in depth. There may be a few household names among the West Ham backups but collectively they tend towards the old and the slow.  Injuries haven’t helped, but it is rare to see any exciting options sitting on the Hammers bench – where Manuel Pellegrini is reluctant to take risks with younger players.

Even today’s opponents look to have better options in reserve. Assuming the Cherries stick with the same eleven that started in last week’s win at Southampton they can attack with some variety.  The power of Solanke and the pace and movement of Wilson and King are sure to unsettle our defence, even with its new found enthusiasm for clean sheets.  The Cherries have a solid, hard working midfield but will be able to call upon the services of Fraser and Lewis Cook from the bench if something different is required.  I really like the look of Cook (who has just returned from a long layoff) and both he, and the injured Brooks, will have big futures ahead of them.

According to Sky Sports, Manuel Lanzini is back in the West Ham squad for today’s game.  If that is true then it would be excellent news, even if he is not a starter – relying on Robert Snodgrass or Carlos Sanchez as game changers from the bench does not inspire any confidence.  It would be no surprise if Pellegrini selected the same side that started in the defeat of Manchester United, except for any enforced change due to the fitness of Ryan Fredericks.  Although Pablo Zabaleta is one of the more able deputies in the squad, I do worry about how well he will handle the pace that Bournemouth have down the flanks.

The whistle and headset referee today is Stuart Attwell from Nuneaton. The VAR-meister waiting to use the offside micrometer and furiously checking back phases of play for technical infringements is Andrew Madley (the older brother of refugee referee Robert ‘Bobby’ Madley).

Pundit wise, we have Lawro predicting a 2-1 home and Charlie Nicholas anticipating a rip-roaring 2-2 draw.  This is a match that typically provides plenty of goals and there are good reasons to believe that the trend could continue today.  Bournemouth’s weakness is their defence which has a tendency to be accident prone – something the Hammers must be ready to take advantage of.  Just eight goals from six games is not an impressive statistic and turning possession into meaningful chances is one of the key areas requiring improvement.  Sebastien Haller is potentially the most competent striker we have had for some years but he needs to be given decent service.

West Ham need everyone on the top of their game and to be in the right frame of mind from the off.  This will be no stroll along the prom but with a determined performance, especially in the middle of the park, they have the quality to extend their unbeaten away record (in the league, at least) and even go on to win the game. Although I have some reservations about how well we can cope with the hosts attacking pace and power, I will back West Ham to exploit the uncertainties in the home defence and come away with a thrilling 3-2 win. COYI.

Two of the Premier League’s Top Six Go Head to Head on the South Coast

OK, so I know we are only six games into the new season. Nevertheless, how good is it to see three teams who are not members of the “elite six” occupying places in the top six of the Premier League even at this early stage? And if one of the two teams meeting at the Vitality Stadium (still known to some fans as Dean Court) emerges as the winner of this Saturday’s game then they are guaranteed a place in the top half dozen for another week at least, and potentially a place in the top two! Well that’s unlikely as I can’t see Manchester City tripping up at Goodison Park, but a third place beckons (at least in the short term) as neither Leicester nor Arsenal, who currently occupy third and fourth, play until Sunday or Monday. Let us hope we can keep our excellent run in the league going with another win to enable us to look down on the majority of teams in the top flight. But it won’t be easy!

Bournemouth are now an established Premier League side. Few would have predicted when they were promoted as champions of the Championship in 2014-15 that they would last long at this level, but they’ve proved the doubters wrong, and under the excellent leadership of Eddie Howe they are now embarking on their fifth consecutive season in the top division. In a game dominated by money it is refreshing to see a side who must rank fairly low in the Premier League revenue or turnover tables doing so well. I hope that it continues for them but not today!

Their start to the season is an interesting one in that both teams in their matches have scored in each of their six league games to date, an interesting statistic for anybody who likes to bet on the “both teams to score market”. Ironically they played at home to Forest Green Rovers in the second round of the Carabao Cup and this ended in a goalless draw (which Bournemouth then won 3-0 on penalties). But they too suffered an indignity in this competition on Wednesday night, but more of that later.

I can’t see this game ending without goals. In the four seasons that the two teams have met since Bournemouth’s promotion there have been 30 goals, giving us an average of almost four goals a game. Bournemouth have won four of those games and West Ham two with two draws. However many of you may recall Boxing Day 2017 when we were robbed of victory in the last minute by a Callum Wilson goal that was both offside and handball that the referee chose to ignore. If only VAR had existed then……

Another interesting feature of Bournemouth’s start to this season is the fact that four of their six games have ended with a 3-1 scoreline – the last four league games they have played in fact! 3-1 defeats to Manchester City and Leicester have been followed by 3-1 wins over Everton and Southampton. We can therefore eliminate 3-1 as a potential scoreline for this game, as to be involved in five consecutive league games ending in a score of 3-1 just will not happen.

I greatly enjoyed the game last weekend when we comfortably beat Manchester United, but I have to say I was not impressed with the TV coverage in the aftermath which I watched upon my return home from the match, nor did I take kindly to the radio, nor the newspaper coverage that followed a day later. Unfortunately the media are only really interested in the “elite six” that I mentioned previously, and cannot give credit where it is due to others who may beat one of that number. It was all about where Manchester United are failing and little mention of what we are doing right. But we have to ignore it really. Just as when a pundit makes a negative prediction about a forthcoming West Ham game, and you read on the internet, “West Ham fans will not want to hear what x is predicting about this game.” Poppycock we don’t care what x thinks. We should ignore it. It does not matter. What does matter is what actually happens on the pitch. It’s just a shame that the quality of punditry is just so poor and biased now, and frequently lacking in any form of neutrality. I can relate back to quality views on football, such as the ITV panel for the 1970 World Cup, when you really wanted to hear their views. Perhaps football punditry on TV began as a result of the panel in 1970? The modern equivalent is very poor in comparison.

As I sat in my seat last weekend and looked around me, I wondered how many of the people in the stadium were lucky enough, as I was, to see West Ham win trophies in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Our trophy cabinet may not be the largest but it was great to be there to see us win FA Cups, and a European trophy. But since 1980 what have we won? Of course there was the two bob cup, and we were desperately unlucky in the 1981 League Cup Final and the 2006 Cup Final, but we have achieved nothing to provide any reason for buying a bigger cabinet. We’ve seen some great football at times but wouldn’t it be great to see us add to the honours board? Of course the Carabao Cup provides the best chance of doing this, but despite coming close in the past, it is a trophy that we have never won.

I was really hoping that this time around we would be taking this competition seriously and doing our best to give the fans the chance of seeing us lift a trophy once more. As I looked around last week it occurred to me that probably only a relatively small proportion of the 57,000 West Ham fans there had been lucky enough to witness our past successes, and wouldn’t it be great to win something again? I have lost count of the number of times we have fallen to lesser teams from lower divisions, who may not have the skills but more than make up for it in desire and commitment. I was really hoping that this season would be different. But alas no. Our efforts in games such as this week are disrespectful to the fans, and incredibly so to those who travelled to support the team in Oxford on a September night.

Quite frankly I am appalled that we have done this once again. It is almost beyond belief that we can sink to such depths after the euphoria of the win over Manchester United. It is the West Ham way of course. Beat a top team then lose to a lowly team. I’ve watched it happen for more than 60 years but it doesn’t get any easier to comprehend. Shocks happen in football of course. But it is not really a shock when a “giant-killing act is performed on West Ham. It is almost the expected outcome. Despite not being a big fan of match statistics, just take a look at the shots, and shots on target count for this match. Together with the scoreline they tell the sorry tale of our capitulation once again at the hands of a team two divisions below us.

But wait! Am I falling into the same trap? Concentrating on the failings of the beaten team and not giving due credit to the victors. Without seeing the game but based on reports that I’ve read I suspect that Oxford were fully deserving of their emphatic win based on the shots that they had, and the number of those shots that were on target. Apart from the scoreline, they showed a desire to win the game, a desire to compete, and a desire to be in the next round of the Carabao Cup. It must be one of the best weeks in the history of Oxford United, a 6-0 win away at Lincoln last weekend followed by the scalp of a top six Premier League team. What could be better? Ten unanswered goals in half a week is quite an achievement and is to be congratulated. Well done Oxford for a fine performance and excellent win.

Our manager was quoted after the game with the words “nobody expected this.” Mmmmm. Not exactly expected, but not entirely a surprise either if you are old enough to remember Huddersfield 1960, Darlington 1961, Plymouth 1962, Rotherham 1963, Swindon 1967, Huddersfield 1968, Mansfield 1969, Middlesbrough 1970, Blackpool 1971, Huddersfield 1972, Stockport 1973, Hull City 1973, Hereford 1974, Swindon 1979, Newport County 1979, Wrexham 1981, Watford 1982, Torquay 1990, Oxford 1991, Crewe 1993, Grimsby 1996, Stockport 1997, Wrexham 1997, Northampton 1999, Swansea 1999, Tranmere 2000, Sheffield Wednesday 2001, Chesterfield 2007, Watford 2007, Watford 2009, Middlesbrough 2009, Aldershot 2012, Sheffield Wednesday 2012, Nottingham Forest 2014, Sheffield United 2015, Wigan 2018, AFC Wimbledon 2019. It doesn’t make good reading does it? And I’m not even sure that the list includes every embarrassing exit from the league cup or FA Cup either!

Pellegrini also said “It is very easy to say we played very badly, but they played very well too.” Also “Mentally the players were not prepared to give the 100% that they needed to give in this kind of game. I cannot find a reason.” One newspaper I read giving marks out of ten gave Zabaleta, Balbuena, Diop, Sanchez scores of 2, Masuaku 2.5, Roberto, Snodgrass and Holland 3. Noble top scored with 5 for his 20 minute “cameo” at the end?

So where do we go from here? Well Bournemouth also bowed out of the competition losing 2-0 at Burton Albion, in a game thrice halted by floodlight failure, but resolved each time. So both teams let down their fans in a competition that they could have gone far in, if they’d had the inclination to field full strength sides and matched the desire to win of their League 1 opponents. Hopefully we can win. Any score will do, but it definitely won’t be 3-1!

Out Of The Wilderness: Can Pellegrini Lead Hammers To The Promised Land Of Cup Success?

Some may dream of spires but most West Ham fans will be dreaming of a first trophy win for 40 years.

It is the round of 32 in the Carabao League Cup.  Following this there are just three more matches before booking a date at Wembley (OK, four games if you include the two-legged semi-final).  It is yet another crack at finally ending a forty year famine in the West Ham trophy cabinet.  Several generations of Hammer’s fans have never experienced the joy of cup success.

When the 4th round draw takes place in Milton Keynes later tonight, there will be somewhere between 7 and 14 Premier League balls rattling around in the bowl.  If there are only 7 it will unfortunately mean the Hammers have already  been eliminated but I don’t see that being the case.  There was only one high profile exit from the Tuesday night ties (and a most amusing one at that) and it would be nice to see a few more upsets this evening – just not at Oxford.  And let’s get this one out of the way before we have a good laugh at Tottenham.

West Ham will have to negotiate the hostile Joey Beauchamp Trail on their way to Oxfords’s Kassam Stadium.  Named after the Hammer’s courageous 1994 summer signing, in commemoration of his 58 day West Ham career, it is known to be both treacherous and unforgiving.  Reading Beauchamp’s interview on how the commute made his time at Upton Park a living nightmare was very entertaining.  Apparently, the winger would have gone to the very top of the game if only he had known how to apply for a Young Person’s Railcard. I am looking forward to the Man Versus Wild re-enactment with Bear Grylls on Discovery Channel later in the year.

Tonight will be the fourth time that West Ham have faced Oxford United in the League Cup (1986 (H), 1990 (A) and 2010(H)) with each match going to the way of the home side.  In 1986 and 1990 both teams were playing their football in the same division, while in 2010 it was Premier League against League Two.  In that most recent encounter, Avram Grant’s side only managed to win the game through a scrappy stoppage time winner from Scott Parker.  It was, however, a springboard for an unlikely cup run that included wins against Sunderland, Stoke City and Manchester United before losing out in a two-legged semi-final with Birmingham.  The Hammers have famously never won the League Cup despite a couple of final appearances – something that can’t be said about tonight’s opponents who lifted it during its Milk Cup guise in 1985/86.

As with the majority of other Premier League managers, Manuel Pellegrini will seek to dabble with squad rotation for tonight’s clash.  With things going well in the Premier League and a top six clash with Bournemouth coming up at the weekend, Pellegrini will want to put out a team capable of doing just enough to win in normal time, without the risk of further injuries to key players.  With the League Cup being the most ‘winnable’ of domestic competitions, most fans will be looking for a side that is strong enough to guarantee progression to the next round.  More than anything, we dream of cup success – as we enter the longest barren spell in the club’s senior history (if you ignore the war years).

It will be interesting to see what type of lineup the manager goes for.  Maybe starts for the likes of Roberto, Pablo Zabaleta, Fabian Balbuena, Jack Wilshere, Robert Snodgrass, Carlos Sanchez and Albian Ajeti or the involvement of promising youngsters such as Nathan Holland, Ben Johnson, and Goncarlo Cardoso.  If Holland isn’t in the squad I will eat my hat (if I had one). It will be a difficult balancing act but hopefully Pellegrini is truly prioritising this competition, both in words and in deed.

A top half Premier League side should easily have enough in their locker to see off a mid-table League One side; even away from home with a smattering of fringe squad players – provided that the attitude is right.  These types of games have traditionally been a challenge for the Hammers – facing an opponent who will have nothing to lose.  With the recent bout of optimism around the club can we now start to measure Pellegrini’s West Ham by a different yardstick – one that reflects a far greater level of professionalism? I hope so.   West Ham to win by two clear goals.

There Was Only One United: Takeaways and Ratings From West Ham’s Well Deserved Win Over The Red Devils

In case you missed it, when Manchester United lost on Sunday, the team that beat them was West Ham.

They Are All Looking The Other Way

The problem with beating Manchester United was that all the non-partisan observers wanted to discuss were the shortcomings of the Red Devils and the latest in a long line of managerial crises at Old Trafford.  It happened last season with Jose and now it is happening again with Ole.  Poor old Ole – the only manager in the league whose plans are thwarted by injuries.  By the end of the game, it looked like he was about to burst into tears and scream “It’s not fair”.  What a ludicrous decision it was to appoint him in the first place.  Even at Manuel Pellegrini’s post-match press conference there was little interest from the assembled media in what West Ham could take out from the game and a fourth clean sheet on the bounce.  Only questions regarding his thoughts on the developing situation up in Manchester.  We will need to celebrate this one, a thoroughly deserved victory, quietly by ourselves, while the pundits continue to view everything through the lens of the rich six.  At least more time out of the spotlight might help keep the Hammer’s feet firmly on the ground, allowing the team to build further on their fine start to the season.

An All Round Team Performance

This was a competent, professional performance rather than a spectacular one.  Finally, we appear to be attacking and defending as a team.  Attempting to win the ball back as quickly as possible and denying the space that was previously gifted to opponents by the acre.  Manchester United were not allowed or were unable to create many chances – although Mata was presented with a gilt-edged opportunity equalize at 1-0.  Otherwise, the visitor’s attacking play was mostly channeled wide and generally defended with ease.  There were no major stand-out West Ham performances and everyone played their part.  Declan Rice was again the pick of the midfield for me, but ably assisted by the busy Mark Noble in putting in the midfield graft and yards.  Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna were sound while Ryan Fredericks had maybe his best game in a West Ham shirt (hopefully it is not a serious injury).  Aaron Cresswell defended well and although he was a little wasteful going forward what a peach of a free kick that was for the second goal.

Make A Chance For Me (Come on, give me a break, will you?)

Over the course of the ninety minutes, the Hammers created few clear cut chances of their own.  Other than the two goals, there were only a handful of routine saves to disturb De Gea’s afternoon.  The Andriy Yarmolenko goal was a thing of beauty and seemed rather out of place in a mainly uneventful first half. Yarmolenko is a difficult player to work out.  He has a deft touch, a wonderful left foot – but a right one that is only any use for standing on. Playing wide right, it is obvious that he will want to cut inside yet he still somehow manages to create shooting opportunities.  The pass from Felipe Anderson for the goal was the Brazilian’s best moment of the afternoon.  He is frequently the one player on show likely to produce the unexpected but unfortunately, he had one of those lazy Sunday afternoons.  He could have done better in trying to pick out Sebastien Haller rather than attempt that shot, blocked by De Gea, from the tightest of angles.  Haller must have had a most frustrating afternoon.  He showed some excellent touches and layoffs but most of his work was in the wrong areas of the pitch.  I’m not sure whether he eventually got any touches in the opposition penalty area but he is badly in need of better service if he is to do what he is paid for.  They may be old mantras of mine but more width, the ability to get in behind defences and more incisive passing in the final third all need further work.

Passing The Back

On the topic of mantras, the number of backpasses to the goalkeeper that West Ham players make continues to frustrate. It is not that we use the keeper as an extra defender, building from the back in the style of Manchester City or Liverpool.  The pass back to Lukasz Fabianski is usually as last resort when all other ideas have been exhausted or there are no options available.  I can’t find the stats (and I wasn’t counting) but there must have been close to a dozen backpasses in the first half alone.  When you consider that Fabianski’s pass success rate was below 40%, there has to be a better way of using the ball.  Even a hopeful upfield clearance by the last man would  be just as productive, if not more so.  Outfield players need to take more responsibility in making themselves available.  Perhaps Manuel Lanzini was missed in that respect – being someone who can receive the ball and move forward with purpose.  I thought Pablo Fornals (his replacement) had a steady enough game and getting a full league match under his belt would have done him the world of good.  Plus another promising cameo from Jack Wilshere – a performance that needs to be upgraded to a more prominent role.

Premature Exhilaration – the ANTIVAR movement

It was pleasing to go through an entire match free from the  invasive interference of the poorly implemented eye in the sky VAR system.  Whenever a goal is scored now there is always a thought at the back of your mind that the crazy, crowd celebrations and the carefully choreographed player ones will all be for nothing.  Naturally, I can see the funny side of the disallowed Aurier goal for Tottenham but it was a ludicrous decision.  How could they seriously apply such a spurious level of accuracy to the Son offside from the information available.  Time to go back to the drawing board I think.

Player Ratings: Fabianski (7), Fredericks (7), Diop (7), Ogbonna (7), Cresswell (6), Rice (8), Noble (7), Yarmolenko (7), Fornals (6), Anderson (6), Haller (6). Subs: Wilshere (6), Zabaletta (6), Snodgrass (N/A)

Ole, Ole, Ole! West Ham’s Three Amigos To Put Further Dents In Solskjær’s Season

Despite the Red Devils fall from grace this weekend’s encounter remains one of the season’s highlights. Do West Ham have the swagger, style and attitude to cement their top six ambitions?

True to form, West Ham fluffed their lines at Villa Park on Monday night and failed to put in the performance necessary to claim a spot in the top three.  Or perhaps they were given the wrong script.  One that was a variation on respect the point rather than the promised we’re gonna score one more than you.  Was it one point gained or two points lost?

Following the exuberance of the Norwich victory, it was disappointing that the Hammers showed such little variation in attack.  It was possession for its own sake in safe areas lacking quick breaks, penetration and precious little width.  If Sebastien Haller is to become the striker we have waited so long for, then he needs far better service from those behind him.

So, instead of putting clear daylight between ourselves in 3rd place and the rest of the table , we are at the bringing up the rear of a gaggle of six teams on eight points – including today’s visitors, Manchester United.

The Red Devils are now a pale shadow of the club who have dominated English football for much of the Premier League era.  The post-Ferguson era is playing out much like the post-Busby one did, although they are unlikely to get relegated this time around.  Now on their fourth full-time manager in 6 years, they have the look a fading star who once graced the big stage but now has to be content with the occasional appearance in panto.

It’s not that Manchester United have bad players, they just don’t have enough good ones – certainly not good enough to present the credible title challenge that their followers demand.  They have fallen way, way behind their two north-western neighbours and have no coherent plan to bridge the gap.  They are obsessed with paying over the odds for big names rather than team building.  Ole Gunnar Solskjær looks out of his depth in the Old Trafford hot-seat, like a modern day equivalent of Frank O’Farrell (incidentally the Hammer’s oldest living ex-player who will celebrate his 92nd birthday in a few weeks time).

Despite all the negativity, an encounter with the Red Devils remains one of the highlights of the footballing calendar.  Success is relative and they have a reputation and world-wide following that others can only dream of.  Champion’s League qualification (unless through the Europa League backdoor) looks beyond them once again.  Interesting to compare their odds of a top six finish (2/5) with our own at 5/1, as I don’t see so much between the teams.

Rumours of Champion’s League reform resurfaced again in the week with proposals to change the group stage from four groups of eight to eight groups of four – guaranteeing additional money-spinning games that would ensure the big teams stay well ahead in the revenue generation stakes.  Among further worrying proposals are suggestions that that domestic leagues would need to be reduced in numbers to compensate and that CL games would be moved to the weekend to attract a larger global TV audience – something I predicted some years ago.  Personally, I would prefer if the rich clubs simply packed their bags and left domestic competition altogether.  Perhaps then this could be one of our last meetings with the Manchester club.

Back to more pressing matters and Manuel Pellegrini will have at least one selection decision to make following Arthur Masuaku’s red card on Monday.  Pellegrini is not a risk taker and will likely opt for Aaron Cresswell rather than call in Ben Johnson.  Cresswell has really lost his way in recent times and badly needs to rediscover his mojo.

Elsewhere, there is a general consensus among fans (or at least those active on social media) that Andriy Yarmolenko needs to be benched this weekend after disappointing on Monday – from hero against Norwich to villain against …… Villa.  But in Michail Antonio’s absence what are the options?  We have yet to see what Pablo Fornals is all about and there are questions whether the Three Amigos (he, Manuel Lanzini and Felipe Anderson) are too much of a muchness to mix it up in midfield and effectively unlock defences.  It looks so promising on paper but so far has been unable to deliver.

Jack Wilshere is a player who can offer something different. He is an intelligent footballer adept at progressive passing and switching the focus of attack, but the worry is that more than one of him, Mark Noble or Robert Snodgrass on the pitch at the same time leaves the team exposed for pace.  The situation may be complicated if Lanzini fails a late fitness test all things being equal, my guess is that Pellegrini will go for Fornals to replace Yarmolenko in the starting eleven.

I cannot see there being any further defensive changes (aside from Masuaku) and with two clean sheets in a row we must now be entering uncharted territory.  With the visitors seemingly being awarded a penalty every outing, I will be holding my breath every time Angelo Ogbonna makes a challenge in the box.

Manchester United will be without Pogba and Martial while James faces a fitness test.

This weeks on-field whistle blower is Anthony Taylor from Manchester (hmmm?) while the eye in the sky will be Graham Scott from Oxfordshire.  Even with a low bar set for refereeing competency, Taylor is often picked out for special mention.  Expect at least some degree of controversy during the course of the game.

Our pundit friends are once again united in their predictions and both Lawro and Nicholas have surprisingly gone for a 2-1 home win.  Part of their thinking may be that  the Reds will be tired having also played on Thursday night.  It will interesting to see if that is a factor and whether West Ham will exploit it.  I fully expect the visitors to get a penalty at some stage making a third straight clean sheet unlikely.  I do believe that the Hammers can win the game though, but much will come down to the right attitude.  I am fancying a welcome 3-1 victory.