We Got Knocked Down, But Can West Ham Get Up Again For Their Visit To Villa Park

Reality called at the weekend with an emphatic defeat to the league champions. The Hammers must now show their character in tonight’s tough Aston Villa test

Ultimately it was a bridge too far. It was meant to big our big moment. Talked up in the media, the final game of a perfect January, a place in the top four beckoning, and facing a jaded, injury ridden opponent struggling to find enough competent defenders. The higher the expectations built, the more disheartening the fall when it came.

It was no disgrace to be outplayed by what turned out to be a very good Liverpool performance, but it was disappointing that West Ham didn’t give a better account of themselves. Where the visitors passing was smart, crisp and incisive, the Hammers were unable to break the press, were funnelled into cul-de-sacs and invention was limited to hopeful first-time flicks.

Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek found themselves outnumbered in midfield and were unable to offer the usual solid foundation to build upon. Not the first time this has happened against an opponent playing 4-3-3, so perhaps a Plan-B is required for such occasions.

As the game progressed, it seemed a scoreless draw was the best we could hope for, but a moment of poor judgement by Aaron Cresswell allowed Salah the gilt edged opportunity needed to put an end to his scoring drought. The goal played out like watching an accident in slow motion. We all knew what Salah was hoping to do and yet he was allowed to execute it without challenge. After that, there was no way back.

In different circumstances, the last two Liverpool goals would have merited a polite round of applause, even from opposition fans. The breakaway goal was a thing of beauty and a more worthy goal of the season contender, in my opinion, than the usual 30-yard pile-driver.

What we need now from West Ham is to see a positive reaction. It is not uncommon, once the momentum of a good run is lost, that it has a debilitating effect on the player’s mentality. The last thing we want is to do a Southampton – and the next few games will be a true test of the player’s character. Bouncebackability as Iain Dowie once termed it.

No surprise that the transfer window came and went without putting a dent in the West Ham war chest. An already skeletal squad ending the day a net one down in its senior player complement (Haller and Snodgrass out; Lingard in). It turns out that the myriad worldwide striker links in the media and the teasing in-the-know insights from ExWHUtealady and others, were all just made-up in someone’s bedroom.

I do understand David Moyes pragmatic position on transfers. Better to spend what limited money might be available in the summer than on a Sullivan-special now. Sullivan loves to parade an exotic name in a misguided attempt to impress and appease the fans. Moyes has done a fantastic job with the resources he has to work with, but progression at the club is constrained by ongoing mismanagement in the boardroom – and the consequences of the big sums wasted by Pellegrini on players patently unsuited to the Premier League.

Perhaps the inactivity will provide an opportunity for selected academy players – Ben Johnson, Jamal Baptiste, Connor Coventry, Nathan Holland, Mipo Odubeko – to stake a claim during the remainder of the season. High time that the ‘Academy of Football’ delivered the goods.

Today’s opponents, Aston Villa, leave me heavily conflicted. They are having a fine season, have invested (mostly) wisely in the squad, play attractive and enterprising football and can boast arguably the most creative midfielder in the country. Yet all those positives are undone by their ever whinging manager, Dean “VAR ate my hamster” Smith, and the unashamed cheating antics of Jack Grealish. The outlandish dive by Grealish in this season’s reverse fixture, conning the referee into awarding a yellow a card to Pablo Fornals, simply has no defence. Any self-respecting sport that was interested in cleaning up its act would find a way to take retrospective action over such incidents.

Tonight, is going to be a tough game. I don’t see many changes to the West Ham line-up except a first glimpse of Jesse Lingard in a West Ham shirt, probably from the bench.  Goals will again prove a problem for the Hammers and any thoughts that Villa are vulnerable at the back are dispelled by their having the second lowest goals against in the league right now. We will do well to come away with a point and I am liking the look of 1-1 draw. COYI!

The Hammers visit Villa Park hoping to start another winning run

Our run of consecutive winning games (which had reached six in number) had to come to an end at some stage, and I guess it was inevitable that the Premier League champions, who had found some form when visiting our North London neighbours just a few days ago, would be the team to end the sequence. We went into the game full of confidence, but right from the outset appeared to me to show the Merseysiders too much respect. We didn’t play as well as we might, and our lone striker (Antonio), despite having an excellent season so far, seemed a bit below par for the second game running. Perhaps he needs a rest, although the lack of alternatives to fit into the lone striker role is a definite worry for the remainder of the campaign.

Liverpool’s first goal came as a result of allowing Salah to come inside and curl a shot into goal with his left foot. He should have been forced to go on the outside; a defensive error. The second goal resulted from an excellent counter attack from our corner as we chased the game from a losing position, but despite the brilliant execution of the goal I was disappointed that we let it happen. It reminded me of other counter attacks where we have conceded in recent seasons (goals from Arsenal and Manchester City come to mind).

The game and the result provided a reality check to those fans talking us up into a potential top four finish and showed the gulf between the very best (Liverpool and Manchester City in my opinion) and those chasing them. Liverpool showed that not only their best eleven are a very good side, but that they have strength in depth that we do not possess.

Nevertheless we need to put the game behind us, learn from our mistakes, and move on to the Villa match, and try to recapture the form that has enabled us to climb the table. The Midland claret and blues, like ourselves, have performed beyond expectations in the season to date. But when you look at the form table for the last five games, they have lost three of them, whereas we have twelve points, second only to Manchester City in the Premier League.

It will be interesting to see if the manager makes any changes for this game to try to freshen up the team, although I’ll be surprised if he does. He tends to stick with largely the same players who have taken us to fifth place, and it is hard to argue against the success of the season to date. I’m always surprised by the substitutions he makes (or doesn’t make), but he stands or falls by those decisions.

As far as the bookmakers are concerned Aston Villa are favourites at 6/5 to take the spoils, with both a West Ham win and the draw available at around 23/10. The favourite “correct score” is a 1-1 draw, and this is a likely outcome, although wearing my optimistic hat, I’ll take us to sneak a 2-1 win. I just hope that the referee is not fooled by diving antics which were a feature of the game when the sides met at the London Stadium, with one player in particular (and we all know who he is) guilty of falling to the ground very easily.

So 2-1 is my prediction plus we are overdue being awarded a penalty kick. What are the chances?

The rollercoaster ride of following West Ham

A brief summary of more than sixty years of being a West Ham fan

I read an article recently that was written by a West Ham fan who likened following the team to a rollercoaster ride. I could see where he was coming from with the ups and downs from season to season, and even from game to game. I suppose a lot of football supporters feel this way about their team, but at West Ham I’m sure we experience it more than most.

As a fan I came in when we were fairly high on the ride. The first season I remember (as a five- year-old) was 1958-59. We had been promoted the previous year from Division Two into the top flight (Division One in those days) and in our first season finished in sixth position, and were holding third place before losing our final game. The following season we began a slow descent. A magnificent run through September to November where we won 11 out of 13 games in all competitions (losing just one) meant that we topped the league on 21 November. The following Saturday (I remember it so well because I was in hospital) we travelled to Hillsborough and were soundly beaten 7-0 by Sheffield Wednesday. We began to go down at that point, were bundled out of the FA Cup in the third round 1-5 at home by second division Huddersfield, and finished the season in 14th.

The 1960s were good in that we remained in the top division throughout, hovering between lower top half and bottom half, with the highs of the FA Cup trophy in 1964, followed by the European Cup Winners Cup a year later. The rest of the sixties and early seventies saw more of the same with another peak in the middle of the latter decade with our second FA Cup followed by an excellent run to another European final, playing some great football on the way through the competition.

Following that we began to hover just above the relegation places and eventually went down in 1978. A win in the final game at home to Liverpool would have kept us up but the Merseysiders cruised to a 2-0 win and our 20 year stay in the top flight was over. But all our best players remained and we began to go upwards again. It took us three years to get promoted, but we had a wonderful run in that time, winning the FA Cup for the third time in 1980, and then breaking all records the following season winning promotion as champions with a record points haul, and reaching the League Cup final where we unluckily lost to Liverpool after a replay.

Top half finishes throughout most of the early 1980s culminated in our best league season ever (1985-86), finishing third after being in contention to be champions for most of the season, despite a poor start where we only won one of our first seven matches. Liverpool finished top that year and we were pipped for the runners-up spot after losing at Everton on the final day.

A sharper decline followed that great year however, and three seasons later we were once again relegated. We came back at the second attempt, only to be relegated the following season and then promoted once again in the next campaign. This was a real yo-yo period but we stayed in Division One throughout the nineties and managed a fifth place finish in 1999. We partied with Prince after the final game of the season (a 4-0 win over Middlesbrough) as we qualified for the Inter Toto cup which meant a July start to the following campaign. Success in that early season tournament gave us entry into the UEFA Cup where we were eliminated in the second round, but still finished in the top half in the last year of the twentieth century.

The roller coaster was back in the early noughties with a lower half followed by a seventh place followed by relegation under Glenn Roeder. But we were back in the Premier League once again a couple of years later and reached the FA Cup Final in our first season. The final against Liverpool at the Millenium Stadium was one of the great finals, but Gerrard’s 30 yard shot in injury time denied us victory, and of course we lost the penalty shoot-out.

Top half finishes throughout most of the rest of the decade came to an end with a 17th place finish under Zola in 2010 followed by another relegation a season later under Avram Grant. This time we bounced back at the first attempt under Big Sam and have remained there since, with an excellent final season at the Boleyn in 2015-16, followed by a leaner period since.

So we have come full circle with the high of six wins in a row to begin 2021 followed by a reality check from Liverpool on Sunday. Looking back it is interesting how often Liverpool have featured in this brief summary of more than 60 years of following the ups and downs of West Ham.

Has it been a rollercoaster ride? In one respect the analogy is a false one because the greatest thrill that you get when riding the rollercoaster is not when you are ascending, but more in the rapid plunge to the low point after reaching the top. As a football fan, the best times are the ride to reach the peak, not the fall that has inevitably followed. Nevertheless it has been a great ride that, despite some of the many frustrations in being a West Ham fan, I wouldn’t have swapped for growing up following any other team.

Fast Rising Hammers Desperate To Be On Top Of The Klopps

Liverpool may have easily seen off one of the capital’s lesser sides in midweek, but it will be much tougher ask against the top team in London.

Another day, another win and the 2021 West Ham juggernaut just kept on rolling with a stylish win over Crystal Palace that was far more convincing than the record books show. For a few days it left the Hammers occupying a Champion’s League spot and starting to attract media attention, much of it focusing on the second coming of the Moyesiah.

In one TV interview, Darren Lewis from the Daily Mirror was asked where he thought West Ham would finish, and replied “definitely top six!” Funnily, I have yet to come across any Hammers fan with such an optimistic view. I’m not claiming scientific sampling on my part, but the consensus tends more towards a 7th or 8th place finish.  Privately, it is great to be in a position to dream of glory, but deep down is the nagging sensation that the wheels are sure to fall off sooner or later.

In a much more competitive Premier League season than normal, West Ham’s fifteen minutes in the media spotlight has followed similar unfamiliar focus on teams outside the rich six including Leicester, Southampton and Villa. While Leicester have continued to set the pace, Southampton and Villa have faded recently after a string of poor results. The true measure of the Hammer’s credentials and progress will be how they recover if and when they experience a similar downturn.

Although West Ham have only failed to score in three Premier League games this season, they are not really scoring enough goals (and are not clinical enough in taking chances) to be a true threat at the top. Any team that has won over half of it’s matches should boast a better goal difference than the current +6. As we saw in the Palace game, a more ruthless attack might have come away with six or seven.

Top quality strikers are difficult to find, though, and its increasingly looking like this transfer window will draw another blank on that ‘score’. Looking at Moyes time at Everton and he had also struggled to uncover any regular and prolific goal-scorers – Yakubu (15) and Saha (13) were the best league returns during his eleven seasons at Goodison. There were, however, good contributions from all over the pitch, notably from the likes of Cahill and Fellaini. Maybe that is by design and is what he is looking to achieve at West Ham. It might certainly be a more productive strategy than panic buying for the sake of it. It does leave a huge dependency though on Michail Antonio’s fitness – Antonio’s importance to the team is much more than just his goals.

With no new striker on the horizon then, the squad did see one new addition during the week with the arrival of Jesse Lingard, on loan for the remainder of the season. Maybe not anyone’s dream signing but he adds competition for places and extra flexibility in attacking areas. I have seen some odd reactions to the signing online, from outrage over his controversial social media presence to concerns that he would be replacing a favourite player in the starting eleven. As I see it, he strengthens and deepens the squad and whether he is a regular starter or is used mainly from the bench will depend on how well he performs. With almost half a season still to go, there will be times when Lingard is called upon and he is an upgrade on Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko in terms of energy and commitment.   

Lingard’s signing was too late to feature in this weekend’s game, but unless any late changes are enforced, David Moyes was never going to change the side that started and performed so excellently at Palace.

Today’s opponents, Liverpool, ended a lean period of results with a win over Tottenham on Thursday night. Reading the reports, it appears the result was either down to the champion’s brilliance or to Tottenham’s abysmally poor showing. Probably somewhere in between.  Liverpool may have easily seen off one of the capital’s lesser sides, but it will be much tougher ask against the top team in London.

Much has been made of the Liverpool injury crisis (welcome to our world) which is either down to bad luck or a cumulative consequence of too many high intensity games in the Klopp style. Whichever way, they do go into tomorrow’s game with a severe shortage of central defenders. Hopefully, this is a weakness that Moyes and team are planning and able to exploit.  

Despite shortages they may have at the back, the visitors are always dangerous and free-scoring in attack – maintaining their position as the league’s highest scorers. Only the highest levels of concentration and discipline will suffice in keeping chances to a minimum. Much of the Liverpool threat comes through the full-backs, and they have caused embarrassment to West Ham in previous games. Essential that space and supply is closed down and shut off for the duration.   

And finally, beware Egyptians falling over in the penalty area. Take note referee Jonathan Moss and VAR pal, Craig Pawson.

The game should prove an intriguing battle. I believe Moyes would be inclined to contain Liverpool and hope to hit them on the break, but too timid an approach might deny the Hammers a rare opportunity to exploit the visitors soft and depleted centre. It is a huge opportunity to reclaim that rightful place in the top four. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

What are the chances of six in a row for the Hammers?

Crystal Palace stand in the way of West Ham extending their winning run in 2021

It has been well reported that for the first time in our 125 year history West Ham have won the first five games in a calendar year. Three of them have been in the Premier League and two against lower league opposition in the FA Cup, where we have so frequently slipped up in the past. Our win over Doncaster Rovers on Saturday was a professional performance, and gave an opportunity to several fringe players to impress the manager.

For me, Benrahma and Fornals ran the game. I have been very impressed with both, although they have their critics among our fans. My colleague and co-blogger Geoff made a very valid point in his article yesterday regarding Benrahma, suggesting that perhaps he is trying just that that little bit too hard to score. I’m sure it will come and that he will be an impressive addition to our team in the years to come. Against Palace he will come across Eze, another player plucked from the Championship who I believe will make quite an impact in the top flight.

It seems that Palace’s main threat in games, Zaha, will return to the team for this game, as will our old friend Kouyate, although Tompkins will not be facing us this evening. Zaha is an important player for our opponents, contributing to almost half of their goals this season, either as scorer or with assists, and I believe they would struggle without him. Nevertheless he is one of those players, who, despite his unquestionable skills, flatters to deceive too often to make him a really top class player. But along with Eze, they are the two players we need to keep quiet. But our defending as a team is the main reason for our success of late, and hopefully we will frustrate them both.

Despite the success on Saturday, David Moyes will undoubtedly revert to the players that have been the mainstay of our league team in recent games. I would be surprised if our starting line-up is not Fabianski; Coufal, Dawson, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Soucek; Bowen, Benrahma, Fornals; Antonio. It’s surprising how we’ve gone half way through a season with as few injuries as we have had compared to recent times when it has seemed that we’ve always had a number of players unavailable. Perhaps it is down to the increased levels of fitness that has also been very noticeable this term?

CRYWHU2Both Palace and ourselves have a relatively poor record in London derbies lately, although Palace have had the upper hand in head to head fixtures against us in recent times. I thought that they looked quite a good side when the teams met a week before Christmas. Benteke opened the scoring in the first half before Haller’s sensational overhead kick brought the scores level.

Palace haven’t had the best of times since that game, whereas we have gone from strength to strength, and that is probably the reason why the bookmakers make us favourites at around 11/8 to come out on top this evening. Both Palace and the draw are on offer at around 11/5, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a repeat of the same scoreline as the game at the London Stadium a little over a month ago. However, I am hoping that we can collect our eighth clean sheet of the campaign and perhaps score a goal for another win.

One statistic that always bothers me is when I read about the poor recent form of our opposition prior to a game. In fact since that game against us in December, Palace have scored just three goals and conceded fifteen. They haven’t scored since beating Sheffield United 2-0 on 2nd January, and in the season to date they have conceded 33 goals, a total only exceeded by West Brom and Leeds. But I’m going for three more points in a 1-0 win, to make it six victories in a row. What are the chances?

Groundhog Day Part Deux: The Top Four Beckons If West Ham Can Outsmart The Eagles

The cup dream remains intact, but it is now back to league action with a visit to Crystal Palace. Will the Eagles once again thwart the Hammer’s quest for a spell among the league leaders?

In the end it was a thoroughly professional display that eased West Ham past Doncaster Rovers and into the fifth round of the FA Cup. The pre-match banana-skin phobias came to nothing and the introduction of a sprinkling of fringe players failed to deflect the Hammers from their current purposeful stride.

Since last winning the cup in 1980, West Ham have, more often than not, been eliminated by this stage of the competition. That the cup dream is still alive is a bonus, even if a next round encounter with Manchester United does appear a little daunting from here. This year’s fifth round boasts an unusually strong field and with few unexpected early casualties it belies the not taking it seriously mantra. The draw will almost certainly contain twelve Premier League sides (and eight of the current top ten) assuming Tottenham get the better of Wycombe Wanderers this evening. Plenty to do then before making plans for a long-awaited return to Wembley.

It is back to league action tomorrow with a trip to the suburbs to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Games against Palace have taken on a recurring theme of frustration and disappointment just lately. A Groundhog Day sensation whereby victory would have elevated the Hammers to some lofty league position, only for it all to go horribly wrong at the last moment. It happened to Pellegrini’s team in October 2109 and again, just over a month ago, for David Moyes. Tomorrow, a win would take West Ham (at least on a temporary basis) into the Champion’s League places, and with a realistic prospect of being above Liverpool when we play them next Sunday. Can it happen or will Palace once again pee on our chips?

Whenever I have seen of Palace this season they have failed to impress. They are spoken about as possessing more adventure these days, but it has hardly registered in my eyes, apart from a blitzkrieg of a game against a woeful West Brom. Their performance in the drawn game at the London Stadium was one of their better efforts, but since then they have won just one (against Sheffield United) in seven games – a run that includes shipping 7, 3 and 4 goals to Liverpool, Villa and Manchester City, respectively. Although Eze has the makings of a good player, they remain very much a one-man team – take away Zaha and they would be in the thick of a relegation battle. Sadly, it seems that despite missing the Manchester City defeat, Zaha is back available for the game.

Barring any unknown injuries or Covid self-isolations, the West Ham team pretty much picks itself at the moment. The only uncertainty is Pablo Fornals or Manuel Lanzini. I would opt for Fornals but I have a feeling Moyes may think otherwise – and his opinion carries more weight than mine.

I have been increasingly impressed with Said Benrahma. He has been getting progressively better (and contributing more) as his pitch time has increased. His trickery adds a different dimension to the West Ham midfield, and he works hard at the same time. Would, of course, love to see more end product (is he trying too hard to score?) but his willingness to look for the ball and run with it brings back fond memories of Berkovic and Benayoun.

Striker speculation continues to run amok in the media where stories of £30 m+ bids being tabled sit by side with claims of poverty from the boardroom. I sense the chances of anyone new coming in are getting smaller by the day. That there are those at the club who believe we can somehow muddle through with a combination of Andriy Yarmolenko, Mipo Odubeko and Oladapo Afolayan as cover for Michail Antonio. Loan signings might be a possibility if they can be agreed, but West Ham are already at their maximum for domestic loans.

As much as I don’t rate Palace, this won’t be an easy game. Few games are in the Premier League. Some were unimpressed with the Hammer’s performance against Burnley, but see what they went on to do at Anfield. The majority of teams are well organised and will work hard – that has been Palace’s game plan for all of their seasons under Hodgson. I do think, though, that we currently have the right mix of confidence, skill, variety and power to hurt most opponents.

If this game were being played exactly one week later, it would fall on the actual Groundhog Day. This time, though, I feel confident the curse of Crystal Palace will be lifted. West Ham to win 2-0 – and we might even get that elusive first penalty. COYI!

Season In The Sun: West Ham Craving Joy And Fun Of FA Cup Success

Dust down those claret ribbons as Hammers plan to head all guns blazing towards first silverware for over forty years

I’m not sure I like the idea of knowing the next round’s cup opponents before the previous one has been played. It removes a layer of excitement and spontaneity from the equation. Still, it is was it is, and the Hammers have been given a fourth-round tie against Doncaster, which they are expected to win, followed by a fifth-round visit to either Manchester United or Liverpool, where history provides far less room for optimism.

Not that they should fear anyone in their current mood, particularly in a season characterised by a peculiar levelling-up (or is it a levelling-down) in the Premier League. At the halfway stage, West Ham join with Leicester, Everton and Southampton as would-be usurpers, threatening to break the traditional stranglehold of the rich six – at least for the European places, if not the title itself.

Seasons in the sun are rare at West Ham and, where they have occurred, have come in the form of sunny spells rather than prolonged periods of cloudless blue skies. A cluster of cup wins in the 60’s, the excellent side of 1980-82, the boys of 86. All good times but far too short-lived. The most recent good in parts season was 2015/16, where the emotional departure from the Boleyn was married with the match-winning genius of Dimitri Payet. Even then, it was as good as it promised and how quickly it all fell apart afterwards.

At this season’s midpoint, the Hammers have amassed their best ever return of Premier League – what might have been possible with even half of Leicester’s ten penalties? It does feel like an over-achievement, though – but the players and coaches should all give themselves a huge pat on the back, as is appropriate in these socially distanced times. But where does it go from here?  It would seem impossible to maintain the same momentum through the second half of the season with such a small squad of players. Despite all the noise in the media, I’m not picking up any positive vibes about reinforcements coming in – at least the type who can make a difference. The dark clouds of boardroom incompetence may soon be casting their unwelcome shadows over us.

Back to today and it is the magic of FA Cup action at the London Stadium courtesy of a visit from Doncaster Rovers, currently among the frontrunners in League 1 under the management of Darren Moore – but having recently sold arguably their best player, midfielder Ben Whiteman, to Preston North End.

It is completely unfair on my part, but I always think of Doncaster as one of a group of anonymous teams from the lower leagues (like Rochdale, Scunthorpe, Lincoln or Rotherham) who might occasionally get the odd season in the second tier but are more at home bouncing between leagues one and two. As we know for experience, though, that is no barrier to giving the Hammers a very hard time of it in cup games.

Fans of football trivia might be interested to know of Rovers’ claim to fame as one of the teams involved in the world’s longest ever football match – a Division Three North cup replay in 1946 which lasted a grand total of 203 minutes. Coincidently, their opponents that day were Stockport County, who, of course, West Ham defeated in the previous round of this year’s cup.  The Stockport-Doncaster game had been locked at 2-2 after ninety minutes, and followed by a scoreless extra time period of 30 minutes. No penalty shoot-outs back then and the match then entered a ‘next goal’s the winner’ phase. However, there was no further scoring and when the sun went down the game was called off due it being too dark to continue. Doncaster eventually won the second replay 4-0.

The only player I know of who has served both West Ham and Doncaster is Rufus Brevet. Brevet played over 100 times for Rovers at the start of his career before finding his way to East London, via QPR and Fulham. He made 28 appearances for the Hammers (scoring once) between 2003 and 2005.

David Moyes has committed to playing a strong side in the Cup and has said that he wants to win it for Mark Noble. That sounds like it means another start for Michail Antonio (in the absence of there being any other striker available) although fringe players such as Noble, Andriy Yarmolenko, Fabian Balbuena, Issa Diop, Ryan Fredericks and Ben Johnson might be in line for a start.

Lifting the cup at Wembley would be a fitting climax to Noble’s career, but I can only see it working if he comes on as a late substitute in the final. Teams start to take the cup a lot more seriously from the sixth round onwards – moving closer to their strongest elevens.

Maybe having to play Manchester United or Liverpool in the fifth round isn’t as bad as it might sound, their minds are likely to be engaged elsewhere on league titles and European competition.  Strangely, they will be more concerned about not losing to each other than will about West Ham.

To set up a trip to the north-west, though, we must first see off Doncaster. I would be lying if I said I knew anything about the way they play, but if Whoscored can be relied upon, they are a passing team, good at through balls, favour attacking down the right, take their chances, are proficient at holding onto a lead and at coming back from losing positions. Weaknesses are aerial duels and conceding free-kicks in dangerous positions.

I have to believe that West Ham will win this game, but they will be hoping to achieve it without extending themselves unnecessarily – there are just so many important games on the horizon, starting with a trip to Palace on Tuesday. West Ham to score one or two headed goals and clinch that fifth round trip to the north-west. COYI!

The last 16 of the FA Cup beckons for the Hammers

Doncaster Rovers stand in the way of a fifth round tie at Anfield or Old Trafford

It was a bit like the London bus story. I waited a long time to get a score prediction correct in a West Ham game this season, and then two came along together. I didn’t think the West Brom game would be as straightforward as some were predicting, but without reaching the heights we were good enough to win. It’s the sign of a decent side to win games when not at our best and there have been a few like that recently. But Moyes and the coaching staff seem to have improved the fitness levels of the players, and made us a very hard team to beat, by not easily conceding goals. The Pereira shot was the one defensive blemish in five games, which is so unlike the West Ham we are used to watching.

The final whistle in Tuesday’s game meant that the halfway point in the season was reached with 32 points from 19 games, which must be some sort of record in modern times, certainly as far as in the 25 seasons we have been in the Premier League. The equivalent 19 matches in the last campaign yielded 20 points, so we are 12 up at this point. The 19 league games to come brought 19 points last season, so I wonder if we can improve on that by another 12 points, which would take us up to 63 by the end. That’s exactly what it would take to set a new points record for the club in the Premier League. 63 points last season would have resulted in a fifth placed finish. It’s a big ask, but I’m sure our performances can improve further.

With DON3relegation now a virtual impossibility, will the club just want to push on and attain as high a league position as possible, or will we be making more of an attempt to land a trophy, namely the FA Cup? Looked at from a purely financial viewpoint, each incremental finishing position in the Premier League is worth around £2 million more than the position below it in prize money. The team that wins the FA Cup receives prize money of £1.8 million. It is easy to see why the owners of clubs are more interested in league positions than winning cups.

But it need not be like that. We should be aiming for the double. That is not to say that we are going to win the Premier League, but we should be aiming for as high a finish as possible, whilst at the same time trying our utmost to win the FA Cup. Ask the fans what they would prefer, a visit to Wembley or finishing sixth in the league? OK, so the current pandemic will probably mean that fans will not be at the final, but we’d surely like to win the cup, something we haven’t done for 41 years, wouldn’t we? I know I would.

DON2A place in the fifth round is certainly within our grasp, and that would be followed by a difficult (but not impossible to win) tie at Anfield or Old Trafford. Winning that would put us in the last eight and anything could happen from there. Just two more wins to reach the final and three to win the trophy. Perhaps I’m an optimist, but that should surely be our ambition? An excerpt from today’s match programme shows that Declan Rice agrees with me.

DON1Our opponents today are flying high in League One (4th), just three points from the top and will themselves be aiming for promotion to the Championship. They have won four of their last five league games, so they are in good form. But so are we. We are unbeaten in our last five league games and have collected eleven points in those. Let’s hope that we don’t underestimate lower league opposition as we have done so frequently in the past.

Historically Doncaster have beaten us on more occasions than we have won the encounters. I was at Upton Park the last time we met them in a Championship game in 2012. The game ended 1-1 with Kevin Nolan scoring our goal. Nolan also scored the goal that earned us a 1-0 win earlier that season. The campaign ended well as we were promoted via the play-offs, whilst Doncaster finished bottom and were relegated to League One.

What will happen today? Can we expect another tight affair, as has been the case in our recent games? Can we keep another clean sheet? I’m going for a hat-trick of correct score predictions and looking for a 2-0 win, and a place in Round Five. What are the chances?

Unexpected Item In The Baggies Area: West Ham Must Quickly Resolve Striker Madness

West Ham carry their good form into another eminently winnable Premier League fixture. But they must resolve the striker situation if the second half of the season is to build on the good work of the first.

Once West Ham have seen off their final new opponent of the 2020/21 Premier League season they will have reached the halfway stage in fine fettle. A third league in a row would propel the Hammers on to a grand total of 32 points from those n-n-n-nineteen games. Not bad for a team who had been so heavily tipped for relegation.

Whether the momentum can be carried forward into the second half of the season will depend massively on two things: keeping clear of serious injuries; and reinforcing the most obvious vulnerabilities in the squad. Thumbing its nose at past performance, the squad has fared so much better than usual as far as injuries are concerned. Whether this is simply down to good fortune, or a consequence of improved fitness training only time will tell.

As for the chances of reinforcements, my glass currently stands at less than half full. David Moyes is right to say that he wants to spend wisely, but surely would be bonkers to enter into the second half of the season with just the one recognised striker – and one we know will not be able to play in every game. But decent strikers don’t come cheap, and anyone good enough is likely to be well outside the owner’s current price range, which is geared more towards buying on the never-never. When I heard Moyes say on a press call that bids had already been submitted I swear he had his fingers crossed behind his back.

The Burnley game was an odd affair, but a welcome three points nonetheless. Going ahead so early appeared to confuse the players, but the visitors were easily contained during the remainder of the first half. It was great to see Angelo Ogbonna and Craig Dawson (ably assisted by Tomas Soucek) refusing to be bullied by the Wood and Barnes frontal assault. The start of the second half (possibly the result of a half time pep talk) saw the Hammers looking to put the game to bed, but when the second goal didn’t come, they gradually retreated deeper and deeper – far too much for comfort. When the commentator mentioned Burnley hadn’t manage to score in the last ten minutes all season, and that neither of their replacement strikers (Vydra and Rodriguez) had netted since the last Ice Age, I naturally feared the worst. Fortunately, the game fizzled out and another 1 – 0 win was chalked onto the board. Competent rather than exciting – but an incredible turnaround over last season.

Today’s game sees the return of Fat Sam to the London Stadium. hoping to retrieve some of the gum that he left still stuck under the manager’s seat. It will also a rapid return for Robert Snodgrass to the London Stadium, but not for Grady Diagana, who is absent injured. Despite their win at Wolverhampton at the weekend the Albion job looks to me like an escape too far for Allardyce.

The Baggies certainly worked hard at Molineux but the victory owed as much to Wolves abysmal showing (and two borderline penalty calls) as it did to any excellence of the visitor’s part. Wolves recent decline is a timely reminder as to the folly of relying too much on one striker. Still, the Baggies will have been boosted by the win as they try to put the division’s worst defensive record behind them.

There need be no debate about the Hammer’s preferred line-up for today. It will be the same again unless injuries or positive tests for Covid intervene. That will mean yet another start for Michail Antonio even if it should not be for the full ninety minutes this time. The ideal scenario would be to be safely ahead at the hour mark and allow for the introduction of Mipo Odubeko. None of the other replacement options look remotely attractive.

On Saturday, Antonio became only the fourth Hammer to reach forty Premier League goals and is now just seven behind Paolo Di Canio, who heads the leader board with forty-seven. Amazing and telling that a club competing in its twenty fifth Premier League campaign has been unable to find a more regular and consistent goal-scorer.

Maybe it should ring alarm bells but I feel confident enough to predict a comfortable West Ham win tonight. Allardyce still has plenty of work to do in organising the rabble left behind by Bilic – just as Moyes had to in his first spell at West Ham. His defence is hesitant and unconvincing while there is little threat up front – set pieces being the greatest danger. I can’t see West Ham being anywhere near as accommodating as Wolves and the Hammer will surely create more than enough chances to run out as 3 – 0 winners. At least one more on the scoresheet for Antonio and his sights can be set on overhauling that Di Canio record by the end of the season. COYI!  

Can the Hammers make it five clean sheets in a row?

Big Sam’s Baggies visit the London Stadium

We welcome Big Sam to the London Stadium, once again doing his impersonation of Red Adair, this time trying to save the Baggies from relegation. You have to hand it to him, he hasn’t taken a team from the Premier League down yet, but this could be his toughest challenge yet. Having said that their performance to win 3-2 at Wolves last weekend after coming from behind was a notable achievement, and they will be full of confidence from that as they head into this game.

The final whistle in today’s game will signify the halfway point in the season for us, meaning that a victory would put us on 32 points from 19 games, which must be some sort of record in modern times, certainly as far as in the 25 seasons we have been in the Premier League. And talking of records, our last four competitive games have ended 0-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0. How many of you can remember four clean sheets in a row from a West Ham team? I doubt that it has happened in the top flight for many years, but it did happen in our record breaking season of 1985-86, when we finished third and narrowly missed out on being champions. In that season we had a run of five games (four wins and a draw) without conceding a goal before going down 1-0 to Tottenham on Boxing Day. After that game we had a further two 1-0 wins meaning that we only conceded one goal in eight matches.

Going back even further and looking at our record-breaking season in the second tier (1980-81) when we finished as champions by a country mile, we did have a run of six matches where we didn’t concede, as well as two runs of five games, and one of four, all in that same season. But we were exceptional at that time, and only conceded 29 goals in our 42 league games, only losing four times in that campaign.

But I couldn’t find any more examples (perhaps someone will find one or two?) and I think that those highlight the very good performance of the team from a defensive viewpoint. It has of course coincided with the four game central defensive partnership of Ogbonna and Dawson, both of whom have been a revelation, but the team should be congratulated for defending as a whole, and credit must of course go to the management and coaching staff for the work that they have put in to make this happen.

WHUWBA1In history, there was a period in the 1960’s when there were many goals in home matches against West Brom, and I can remember looking forward to the games because we always seemed to beat them and score a hatful. The first time I remember us playing them was in our cup winning season (1963-64) when I saw the game with my dad. It was in November 1963, around the time that President Kennedy was assassinated, and we beat them 4-2. Geoff Hurst scored a couple. It was the first time I can remember seeing Geoff Hurst take a penalty (Johnny Byrne was our regular penalty taker at the time) and he smashed it as hard as he could to the keeper’s right. He always took penalties that way and even though the keepers knew that they couldn’t often get near them (although Gordon Banks famously did in the League Cup semi-final a few years later!). And then there was a “Good Friday” for me at Easter 1965 as for the first time I was allowed to go to Upton Park with friends rather than any adults being with us. I was eleven at the time. Do eleven year-olds go to West Ham on their own these days? It was an even better Friday for Brian Dear as this was the day he scored five goals in a twenty minute spell either side of half time in our 6-1 trouncing of West Brom. I can recall a newspaper headline of the match report that said “Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear!” Brian Dear was a member of our victorious European Cup Winners Cup side just a month later, a game I watched with my dad high up on the Wembley terracing behind the goal where Alan Sealey scored our two goals.

The following January I was there again when we beat West Brom 4-0 with Geoff Hurst again scoring twice, and also in December 1966 when we “only” beat them 3-0. I missed the game in December 1967 when we lost the game by the odd goal in five, but was back again at the beginning of the next season when we put another four past them with a Martin Peters hat trick. This game was sandwiched between putting five past Burnley the previous week and seven past Bolton four days afterwards.

So in six consecutive seasons of home games against West Brom we won five and lost one, scoring 23 goals and conceding 6. Martin Peters scored six times, as did Brian Dear, with five from Geoff Hurst. No wonder I always looked forward to games against them when I was young.

Conversely there was an awful game in February 1973. It was a shocking game to watch. This was summed up neatly by David Miller writing in the Sunday Telegraph who wrote “This wretched display by West Bromwich – hacking, arguing and niggling throughout – will leave few of those present shedding tears at their imminent disappearance into the Second Division.” The referee had a poor game too with Sam Bartram of the Sunday People writing “Referee Kerkhof’s rumbling of the Albion time wasting tactics was one of the few things that he did right all afternoon.”

Effectively the referee added on an additional eight minutes to the second half purely to allow for time wasting, although it felt like he just wanted West Ham to get the winner that they deserved. And we did too with Pop Robson’s late goal clinching a 2-1 victory. Billy Bonds had given us a first half lead that had been cancelled out by Tony Brown’s equaliser in the second half. West Brom were relegated finishing bottom that season. Just deserts from the game I saw!

I have to say that I enjoyed the Amazon Prime coverage of the Burnley game at the weekend. With Gabby Logan holding the programme together, and an excellent commentary team with Ally McCoist surprising me with his insights as co-commentator, and a very good pair of pundits in Matt Upson and Clinton Morrison I thought they provided a refreshing change from the usual fare served up by Sky or BT Sport. I hope that they get more games.

What will happen today? Can we expect another tight affair? Can we keep another clean sheet? Will Robert Snodgrass spoil our run? The Burnley game was the first time in 18 attempts that I’ve correctly predicted the West Ham score this season so what do I know? I’ll go for a 2-1 win with Snodgrass scoring the visitor’s goal. What are the chances?