A Nods As Good As A Wink: Aerial Power The Key For West Ham In The Lyon’s Den

West Ham’s dream of Europa League progress takes centre stage as they head for sudden death success against the Lyon winkers

Preparation for today’s Europa League Quarter Final second leg could hardly have gone any worse. Playing a full-strength side at Brentford on Sunday might have made sense at the time – in the hope of capitalising on slip-ups by Manchester United and Arsenal – but in retrospect giving key players the opportunity to rest would have been the sensible option. The Hammers wouldn’t have taken anything less from the game, and might have found themselves in a far better position to face Lyon.

The performance at Brentford was one of the poorest from a West Ham side for quite some time. We will discover later whether this was down to fatigue or was the result of player’s minds seduced by today’s showdown. There are fine margins at this level and concentration only has to slip a little to be exposed by an opponent as determined as Brentford.

The European adventure has provided a welcome added dimension to the season. Having had a taste, I’m sure most fans are eager for more next season. Qualification for the Europa League or Conference is still a possibility from league position but winning this competition would hit the jackpot of Champions League qualification. Easy to see why today’s game could serve as a distraction.

I was reasonably happy when West Ham were drawn against Lyon. After all, having just knocked out serial winners, Sevilla, what problems could a mid-ranking Ligue 1 side possibly pose? I did worry, though, whether the Hammers had peaked too soon in that Sevilla second leg. It felt like we were already in the final.

This tie sits finely poised after a referee assisted first leg stalemate at the London Stadium. Playing for half a game with ten men is never easy, so huge credit for a gutsy draw. But the implications of the farcical red card do not stop there. We must now play another whole game without the services of Aaron Cresswell. It’s not that Cresswell is a fantastic or irreplaceable player, it’s that he’s the only left back we have! A ludicrous state of affairs to find yourself in.

The other spanner in the works was the news that Kurt Zouma will miss the match, and potentially the rest of the season, with a twisted ankle. Wouldn’t Billy Bonds or Stuart Pearce just have had a squirt of Ralgex and carried on playing? Zouma is a commanding presence in the air but often looks awkward (almost clumsy) going in for tackles. I wonder whether he picks up more than his fair share of injuries because of that. No doubt he is one of our top players and his absence will be sorely missed.

I don’t see David Moyes making any radical changes to shape to compensate for the absences. It will be Issa Diop replacing Zouma in a straight swap, with Ben Johnson in as the least worst replacement for Cresswell. I consider Johnson to be the most accomplished of our full backs defensively but switching sides and playing on your weaker foot is not as easy as many suggest, particularly at the highest level. How well he adapts to the threat down the right may well be one of the pivotal battles of the night.  There has also been speculation about Declan Rice dropping into a back three, but that would be crazy unless the plan is to play under siege for ninety minutes. In any case, the squad does not have the wing backs to deliver the attacking width required from the role.

Could there be change in the forward midfield positions? Manuel Lanzini looked seriously out-of-sorts on Sunday and maybe Pablo Fornals replaces him in the centre, with Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma out wide. Or could there be a surprise return for Mark Noble to stiffen the midfield alongside Rice and Tomas Soucek? Maybe that is a second half change!

My predicted line-up is: Areola, Coufal, Dawson, Diop, Johnson, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Fornals, Benrahma, Antonio   

As with the first game I expect assorted dark arts and skulduggery from Lyon. The type of tactics that commentators euphemistically refer to as ‘using their experience, rather than calling it what it is, cheating. We must hope the Swiss referee is more attuned to such underhand behaviour and does not believe his role is to be part of the entertainment.

Lyon are reported to have picked up a number of injuries since the first leg, notably goalkeeper, Lopes and midfield creator, Paqueta. Goal threats remain from the winking Dembele, Toko Ekambi and Tete requiring new heights of excellence from the Dawson-Diop axis – a pairing that has failed to impress in the past.

Tonight’s winner will be set up for a cracker of a semi-final against either Barcelona or Eintracht Frankfurt. Although underdogs, West Ham can win this. On more than one occasion, the team have demonstrated the character, fight and determination needed to achieve it. It starts all-square with no requirement to win by more than one goal, as in the second leg with Sevilla. As someone famous once said, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

We cannot change the players Moyes has available for selection. All we can do is accept whoever is picked, get fully behind the team, and spur them on to victory. I’m banking on the pace of power of Michail Antonio rattling the Lyon defence and our set pieces causing nightmares for the stand-in Lyon keeper. Dawson to nod in the winner! We still believe. COYI!

Hammers Have An Old Score To Settle With The Bees: Moyes Will Be Buzzing

Yesterday’s results leave the door open for West Ham to snatch successive top six finishes. Can they take advantage with a revenge win over recently rallying Brentford?

Cast your mind back two years to the same stage of the 2019/20 season, and you will remember that West Ham were languishing in 17th place in the Premier League. They had accumulated a meagre twenty-seven points from the thirty-one games played. With three of their relegation rivals each having a game in hand, the future looked bleak at the London Stadium.

It has been a phenomenal turnaround that the Hammers now find themselves in touching distance of a second consecutive top six finish and a Europa League semi-final. Even if those ambitions are eventually thwarted, it is a scenario that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of the most claret-and-blue spectacled optimist back in June 2020.

Huge praise must go the manager, coaches, and a fantastic group of players for this improvement, built around hard work, commitment, and organisation. It’s a great time to be a Hammer. But as supporters we are never fully satisfied. Our minds are always filled with the ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens’. While marvelling at the team’s stellar improvement, I am yet to be convinced that behind the scenes changes have made the progress required to create a legacy beyond the tenure of the manager and the current crop of players. The key to this is a planned and sensible recruitment strategy and a far more productive academy. The jury is still out on both of those – although I won’t let it spoil the enjoyment of the moment.

Harping on about the lack of transfer activity ends up sounding like a broken record. But the implications don’t go away. We are essentially the same side as last season plus Kurt Zouma. Games have been played without a recognised striker and now we must negotiate a Europa League quarter final without a recognised left-back. It’s just so very seat of the pants.

It is apparent this season that fourth spot is up for grabs for anyone able to demonstrate the correct level of consistency. Tottenham made a couple of astute signings in January and are now firmly in the driving seat. West Ham did nothing and have ended as plucky losers as far as that particular prize is concerned. While finishing fifth or sixth would be no mean feat, I can’t help feel it could have been better.

The other regret from the season are the needless points that have been dropped in sloppy circumstances. Losing twice to Manchester United when they both should have ended in draws, for example. And the below par performances that resulted in home defeats to bottom half sides – Southampton, Leeds, and today’s opponents, Brentford.  

The home fixture against Brentford in October was especially frustrating. There’s no doubt the visitor’s deserved their first half lead as a bright and intense opening caught the Hammer’s cold. Having taken the lead, though, the visitors fell back on the dark arts of time wasting and going to ground at every opportunity. Arguably a pragmatic approach for a side on a limited budget newly promoted to the Premier League. Once West Ham had equalised it felt there would be only one winner in the match, but there was to be a sting in the tail. A pointless free kick conceded in the depths of added time, uncharacteristic lapses in marking, a poor parry by Fabianski, and the ball was lashed home for a Brentford win. The Bees leapfrogging the Hammers in the process to move up to eighth.

Brentford have successfully kept their heads just above relegation trouble since then and can now look forward to a second season at the top level. A recent improved run of form was capped with a thrilling and emphatic 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge last weekend. They will prove uncompromising opponents once again today.

If West Ham are to match last season’s points haul, they will require fourteen points from the final seven games. Four wins, two draws and a defeat would achieve that. Looking at the fixture list, today must feature near the top of the winnable games. As Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are still to come, we cannot risk our one defeat at the Brentford Community Stadium.

With the second leg Europa League tie against Lyon coming up on Thursday, some have suggested there might be a spot of squad rotation today. I don’t see Moyes going for that myself and, in any case, he doesn’t have too many options anyway. Perhaps there will be recalls for Vladimir Coufal at right back and Manuel Lanzini in midfield. Lanzini is a player who can be hit or miss, but when he is deployed deeper it does allow Tomas Soucek more opportunity to get forward. It also takes some of the pressure off Declan Rice as the default instigator of almost every West Ham attack.

The defence must stay on high alert to counter the movement and physicality of Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo. Thankfully, Craig Dawson and Zouma have established a strong and solid partnership that has exceeded all expectations and should be equal to the task. Toney hasn’t quite lived up to his goalscoring reputation, and although he is the host’s leading scorer, five of his eight have been from the spot. I am delighted to see Christian Eriksen back playing football again. I wish him the best, even in defeat.

I expect it will be a tough, physical game. The hosts will start with intensity and on the front foot. Moyes will need to prepare his men for the initial onslaught – no slow start can be tolerated this afternoon. It will be an intriguing encounter which I predict West Ham will sneak 1-0. COYI!

West Ham United travel across London to face Brentford on Sunday. Can they avenge their defeat at the hands of the Bees at the London Stadium in October?

Are you old enough to remember 14th April 1991? That’s 31 years ago next Thursday. For all Hammers fans under the age of about 40 I’ll relate what happened that day. On that Sunday afternoon West Ham were playing Nottingham Forest in the 1990-91 FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. We were a second division side at the time whilst Forest were in the top flight. Earlier in that week a new rule had been implemented in football – the ‘professional foul’ rule – referees were instructed to send off players deemed to be denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.  

Tony Gale, the West Ham United defender was given his marching orders during the first half of the game with the game still goalless. The decision by referee Keith Hackett to send Gale for an early bath for his challenge on Forest midfielder Gary Crosby has become infamous, as it was the first occurrence of a player being red carded for a so-called ‘professional foul’ for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. The sad thing about the incident, apart from the fact that it ruined a game of football was that by no means was it a clear goal scoring opportunity. Far from it. In retrospect Keith Hackett regretted his decision to send Gale off, and both have said that if it happened today VAR would immediately have overturned it.

Move on almost exactly 31 years to our Europa League semi-final against Lyon on Thursday evening. In time added on for stoppages at the end of the first half history repeated itself. This time it was Aaron Cresswell who was dismissed in a very important game for allegedly denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. It was perhaps a foul, and Cresswell was perhaps naïve in putting his arm on Dembele’s shoulder, but the way the Lyon forward tumbled was, in my opinion cheating, but worse than that the referee fell for it and brandished the red card, despite it not being a clear goalscoring opportunity. Earlier in the build up to the very same move there was a blatant foul on Bowen, much more obvious than the one that sent Dembele tumbling theatrically to the ground. Where was the VAR review?

Our first half performance hadn’t been that great but Benrahma, Bowen, Fornals and Antonio were looking lively and with the game still goalless at the time there was all to play for. It took an excellent defensive performance in the second half and a Bowen goal to achieve a 1-1 draw at the end – I think we all would have settled for that at half time. It gives us a chance next week in the second leg in France, but personally I am still fuming at the overall performance of the referee which was at best incompetent, and at worst, disgraceful.

Once again we face a Sunday afternoon 2pm kick off to follow our exertions on Thursday evening, with less than three days to recover for the players. I know it’s comparable to Wednesday evening games being followed by another on a Saturday but somehow it seems more onerous psychologically.

On Sunday 3rd October 2021 we faced Brentford at the London Stadium just after we had beaten Rapid Vienna 2-0 in our second Europa League match on the previous Thursday evening. We lost the game 2-1. Jarrod Bowen had equalised Brentford’s first half goal with about ten minutes of the game to go and we pressed for the winner. But in the fourth minute of time added on Wissa scored for Brentford to inflict our second home defeat of the season.

Brentford, who were the favourites at the start of the campaign to finish at the very bottom, have had a decent season and quite probably they will be the only one of the three clubs promoted from the Championship last season to survive as Norwich and Watford are strongly placed to make an immediate return to the second tier. They currently have 33 points, nine clear of the drop zone, and had an excellent 4-1 win at Stamford Bridge last Saturday. Once again this is a game where we must chase three points to maintain our position to challenge at the top of the table.

For the teams involved in chasing the top places in the last round of matches, we beat Everton, and there were wins for Tottenham and Wolves. But Manchester United could only draw, and both Chelsea and Arsenal were well beaten so there are still more twists and turns possible in the next couple of months.

I have updated my analysis of the current positions which are shown below. The defeat for Wolves at Newcastle last night is included.

The current league table – top 8 (games played in brackets) as at Friday 8th April 7.30pm:
Man City 73 (30)
Liverpool 72 (30)
Chelsea 59 (29)
Tottenham 54 (30)
Arsenal 54 (29)
West Ham 51 (31)
Man Utd 51 (30)
Wolves 49 (32)

The form table (last 5 games of the top 8 in the current league table):
Liverpool 15
Chelsea 12
Tottenham 12
Man City 10
Arsenal 9
West Ham 9
Man Utd 8
Wolves 6

Remaining fixtures:
Man City: H – Liverpool, Brighton, Watford, Newcastle, Villa
Man City: A – Leeds, West Ham, Wolves
Liverpool: H – Man Utd, Everton, Tottenham, Wolves
Liverpool: A – Man City, Newcastle, Southampton, Villa
Chelsea: H – Arsenal, West Ham, Wolves, Watford, Leicester
Chelsea: A – Southampton, Everton, Man Utd, Leeds
Arsenal: H – Brighton, Man Utd, Leeds, Everton
Arsenal: A – Southampton, Chelsea, West Ham, Newcastle, Tottenham
Tottenham: H – Brighton, Leicester, Arsenal, Burnley
Tottenham: A – Villa, Brentford, Liverpool, Norwich
Man Utd: H – Norwich, Brentford, Chelsea
Man Utd: A – Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Brighton, Palace
West Ham: H – Burnley, Arsenal, Man City
West Ham: A – Brentford, Chelsea, Norwich, Brighton
Wolves: H – Brighton, Norwich, Man City
Wolves: A – Burnley, Chelsea, Liverpool

Despite our game on Thursday being less than 72 hours ago, and the fact that Brentford won the reverse fixture at the London Stadium following West Ham playing in Europe with a similar time for recovery, and the Bees emphatic victory at Stamford Bridge last weekend, we are still marginal favourites to win the game at around 13/8. The home side are around 17/10 with the draw at about 9/4. At our best we should beat Brentford, but will we be at our best?

All of our rivals have a good chance of picking up points this weekend. Manchester United face an out of form Everton, Arsenal face an even more out of touch Brighton who have picked up just one point in their last 5 games. Chelsea visit Southampton who have gained just one point from their last 4 games, and Tottenham visit Villa who have lost their last three games. But last night Wolves visited Newcastle and lost so that was one good result for us. A win on Sunday will be important for us to keep up our challenge at the top. What are the chances?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hammers Revival Threatens Toffees Survival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Ham United face relegation threatened Everton on Sunday. With just eight league games to go is a top six finish still on the cards?

There are just two months of the Premier League season to go with the top eight teams ten points clear of the teams currently in 9th and 10th position, so you would like to think that those eight teams will finish in the top eight in May. That is the most likely scenario, although Leicester (in tenth) do have three games in hand over West Ham and Wolves in seventh and eighth, so it is not impossible for them to be involved if they have an outstanding set of results to finish the season. As a comparison with the teams above them (see below) the last five Leicester games have yielded 9 points.

We currently sit in seventh place in the Premier League table; a top four finish is beginning to look out of the question, but we are still in touch and challenging for top six. We will need to improve on recent league form to achieve this.

The current league table – top 8 (games played in brackets):

Man City 70 (29)
Liverpool 69 (29)
Chelsea 59 (28)
Arsenal 54 (28)
Tottenham 51 (29)
Man Utd 50 (29)
West Ham 48 (30)
Wolves 46 (30)

The form table (last 5 games of the top 8 in the current league table):

Liverpool 15
Chelsea 15
Arsenal 12
Tottenham 12
Man City 10
Man Utd 10
West Ham 7
Wolves 6

Remaining fixtures:

Man City: H – Liverpool, Brighton, Watford, Newcastle, Villa
Man City: A – Burnley, Leeds, West Ham, Wolves
Liverpool: H – Watford, Man Utd, Everton, Tottenham, Wolves
Liverpool: A – Man City, Newcastle, Southampton, Villa
Chelsea: H – Brentford, Arsenal, West Ham, Wolves, Watford, Leicester
Chelsea: A – Southampton, Everton, Man Utd, Leeds
Arsenal: H – Brighton, Man Utd, Leeds, Everton
Arsenal: A – Palace, Southampton, Chelsea, West Ham, Newcastle, Tottenham
Tottenham: H – Newcastle, Brighton, Leicester, Arsenal, Burnley
Tottenham: A – Villa, Brentford, Liverpool, Norwich
Man Utd: H – Leicester, Norwich, Brentford, Chelsea
Man Utd: A – Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Brighton, Palace
West Ham: H – Everton, Burnley, Arsenal, Man City
West Ham: A – Brentford, Chelsea, Norwich, Brighton
Wolves: H – Villa, Brighton, Norwich, Man City
Wolves: A – Newcastle, Burnley, Chelsea, Liverpool

The outstanding fixtures for the top eight are summarised above, split between home and away games. It is not always easy to decide which fixtures are the toughest or easiest at this stage of the season. Sometimes those clubs battling to avoid relegation can be equally difficult games when compared to facing those clubs challenging for a European place. And with the prize money on offer for each place in the table, all clubs are trying to finish as high as possible, so teams in between can be tough too.

I’ve looked at the fixtures and made a guess at the results to see where I think we might end up. 14 points from the last 8 games would take us up to 62 points which is what Tottenham achieved last season when finishing seventh. 17 points are needed for us to equal last years total of 65 when we finished sixth. 67 points was the total for fourth place last time, but I suspect that it will be higher this time around. If the teams in the top eight maintained their average points for the season to date in their final fixtures then the final table would be:

Man City 92
Liverpool 90
Chelsea 80
Arsenal 73
Tottenham 67
Man Utd 66
West Ham 61
Wolves 58

My own forecast of the results in the remaining games would result in a league table like this: (I’ll look back in May to see how close I got!). Take a look at the outstanding fixtures and see where you think we’ll finish.

Man City 93
Liverpool 91
Chelsea 83
Arsenal 73
Tottenham 70
Man Utd 62
West Ham 62
Wolves 56

Quite clearly we need to improve on our average points per game tally in the final run-in and hope that those teams above us don’t perform as well as they have done so far. Looking at the remaining fixtures of those teams above us I reckon Arsenal and Manchester United have a tougher set than Tottenham, who have potentially the easiest, although Arsenal do have points in the bag. I’ll be looking carefully at the Manchester United results as I believe that if we have a strong finish they are the ones we could catch to finish sixth. It will be close but at this stage a top six finish is still on the cards. Perhaps even goal difference will come into play?

A top 6 place at the end of the season will (I think) guarantee a place in Europe next season as Liverpool have won the EFL Cup. A European spot will extend to a seventh place finish (I think) providing one of Man City, Liverpool or Chelsea win the FA Cup and finish in the top four – a likely outcome unless Palace win the FA Cup.

Full details (an excerpt taken from the Premier League.com/European-qualification-explained website) of how Premier League clubs can qualify for Europe next season can be found here.

So if I’ve interpreted it correctly, sixth should be good enough for another tilt at the Europa League next season, and seventh will qualify for the Europa Conference League. Of course winning the Europa League would be the best outcome as it would mean automatic qualification for the Champions League. What we must not do is finish eighth or below to stand a chance of being in European competition next season (unless we win the Europa League).

Hopefully I’ve got this right. The next obstacle is the visit of Everton on Sunday. The top three teams have relatively easy fixtures this weekend so I think we must hope for Villa to pick up something at Wolves, Leicester to do the same at Old Trafford, and Newcastle to stop Tottenham winning. Arsenal probably can’t be caught but a defeat at Palace would also be a bonus.

All International breaks (and this is the the fourth one this season) can be really disruptive to the league programme, but it does give us the opportunity to regroup for the final push in the last two months of the season. Everton are in disarray but they will be fighting hard to pick up something at the London Stadium. With just eight league games to go we must really hope for three points on Sunday to maintain our challenge.

The European adventure (whatever happens now) has been great this season, and it would be excellent if we can qualify once again. Can we do it? I think we can. What are the chances?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t It Be Good If West Ham could renew their acquaintance with Eintracht Frankfurt? But Tottenham first on Sunday and then Lyon in April.

Since I first went to Upton Park in November 1958 I have seen many great games of football where West Ham have been playing. And Thursday night’s great win over Seville is yet another of the superb matches. The Europa League experts who had never previously been eliminated by an English club in the competition were beaten in extra time with the second emotional winner scored in a week by our Ukrainian Andriy Yarmolenko. But there were great performances all around the field, from the magnificent save by Areola when the score was 0-0 to the tireless Antonio up front, and all the players in between.

Great credit to David Moyes and his coaching staff for the past two seasons, but one area that has been improved immeasurably is the fitness of the whole squad of players. While the Spaniards were making every substitution available to them, we kept almost every player from the starting eleven on the pitch for virtually 120 minutes. And which team were by far the stronger in extra time? Which team wanted to win the game without resorting to penalties? Undoubtedly it was West Ham.

In the last 63 years my favourite ever West Ham game remains the 1976 European Cup Winners Cup semi final second leg that I watched from the North Bank at Upton Park on a night of torrential rain on April 14th 1976. A packed 39,000 plus crowd witnessed a great comeback when we overcame a 2-1 deficit from the first leg in Germany with goals from Keith Robson and two from a majestic performance from the brilliant Sir Trev. There was an electric atmosphere that night and it was repeated with 60,000 in the London Stadium on Thursday.

Friday’s draw gave us the intriguing and enticing possibility of a repeat semi-final against those same opponents from 1976. But first we must overcome Lyon of France, whilst the Germans must beat the tournament favourites Barcelona in the quarter finals. The French team have been disappointing in their domestic league and are currently tenth in mid-table, although their European performances have been much better.

Today’s game against Tottenham comes up very quickly after the extra time exertions of Thursday night and winning will be a difficult task. Friday night’s surprise win by Leeds at Molyneux strengthens our potential to finish in the top seven, although at the moment my understanding is that only the top six will qualify for European competition next season. But if one of the top 4 wins the FA Cup then qualification could fall as low as seventh place, so we are hoping that Manchester City, Chelsea or Liverpool lift that trophy in May. Of course we can ensure qualification if we win the Europa League!

We have a decent record against Tottenham in recent times having won our last two Premier League games against them, but both of those were at the London Stadium. At White Hart Lane we have only won two of the 19 encounters the last one being three years ago when Michail Antonio scored the only goal to inflict Spurs first home defeat at their new stadium. Antonio has scored six Premier League goals against Tottenham, more than he has netted against any other opponents. But it remains to be seen how fit he is after 120 minutes on Thursday night when he was a doubt for that game. Those of you who remember when they used to publish an unofficial London championship in the programme many years ago might like to know that in this season to date Tottenham are currently bottom, having lost five of their seven games.

Tottenham have had a bit of an up and down time so far this season, and it would be great to beat them in this game, but they are understandably the bookies odds-on favourites to win. A draw wouldn’t be the worst result for us looking at the remaining fixtures this season, perhaps 2-2? What are the chances?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can West Ham rediscover their scoring touch when in-form Villa visit the London Stadium on Sunday?

Here we are, two weeks on from my last review prior to the Wolves game and just 10 games to go in the Premier League this season for West Ham. In view of the (mainly Covid) interruptions to the season that happened a few weeks ago some of the other teams competing at the top of the table have either 11, 12 or even 13 games left prior to this weekend’s fixtures. It makes comparisons difficult. 

As I wrote only a fortnight ago am I the only one who would have liked to see players recruited in the winter window stopped from playing in games that are rescheduled following postponements? A blatant example of the point I am making was demonstrated in the Southampton v Newcastle game on Thursday night. Eddie Howe fielded six players who were not available when the game was scheduled to be played in January before it was postponed due to Newcastle’s COVID / injury situation at the time. 

How convenient for the Geordies that Chris Wood, a £25 million signing from Burnley in the winter transfer window, scored his first goal for the Tynesiders to equalise Southampton’s opening goal. And then Guimaraes, a £40 million signing, scored the winner with an outrageous back-heeled volley. The winning goal was assisted by Burn who headed a Targett corner back across goal. Both of those were January recruits too. Newcastle have benefitted enormously, not just from the injection of funds following the takeover, but also from the postponements. Surely the Premier League should have acted to prevent this unfair situation arising?

We currently sit in sixth place still, in touch and challenging for a top four place, although our recent indifferent performances and results of others means that it would take a number of wins in the run-in to achieve this. Perhaps 5th, 6th, 7th or even 8th looks our most likely finishing position as it stands but a lot can change. At this stage it is impossible to know where we would need to finish to qualify for Europe, as this depends on winners of cup competitions.

Our 1-0 defeat to Sevilla leaves the tie still wide open but we should not underestimate how difficult it might be to overturn even just a one goal deficit. If we want to advance into the last eight we will need to become the first team from England to overcome these Europa League specialists. Tottenham, Wolves and Manchester United have all tried and failed in the past. 

And for a team with the fourth highest number of goals scored in the Premier League this season so far we have suddenly lost our ability to convert chances into goals. In the past week against both Liverpool and Sevilla how many golden opportunities to score were spurned? This will need to be improved if we are to stand a chance of progressing in the Europa League and continuing our challenge in the domestic league.

The current league table – top 10
Man City 69 from 28 games
Liverpool 63 from 27 games
Chelsea 56 from 27 games
Arsenal 48 from 25 games
Man Utd 47 from 28 games
West Ham 45 from 28 games
Tottenham 45 from 26 games
Wolves 43 from 28 games
Villa 36 from 27 games
Southampton 35 from 28 games

The form table (last 5 games of the top 10 in the current league table)
Liverpool 15
Chelsea 13
Arsenal 13
Man City 12
Tottenham 9
Villa 9
West Ham 8
Man Utd 8
Southampton 7
Wolves 6

Our opponents this weekend have climbed into the top half of the table in the past fortnight. They have looked very impressive in recent games when beating Southampton and Leeds and will be a difficult proposition on Sunday. Coutinho seems to have regained his Liverpool form after his difficult time abroad. They will visit the London Stadium full of confidence. We haven’t managed to score more than one goal in any of our last five games in all competitions. I reckon that we will need to do so on Sunday if we are to collect the three points that we need to maintain our challenge in the Premier League. What are the chances?