Matchday: West Brom v West Ham

An unexpected Saturday fixture sees the Hammers entertained (!) by Albion at the Hawthorns.

Away at West BromThe consensus in the media, social and otherwise, on the current West Ham predicament and the evidence of 4 Premier League games (and an ignominious Europa League exit) is that we are teetering on the brink of the precipice at the edge of the abyss.  The vultures are circling and the fat lady is already practising her closing number.  The capitulation against Watford was indeed shameful where we not only took our foot off the gas but parked up on the hard shoulder (is that what they call the area around the outside of our pitch?) for a picnic and a refreshing glass of blackcurrant Rabona (I mean Ribena!).  The tendency of West Ham to become all passionate against the big boys but fake arousal against the smaller fry is not a new one (remember the final two home games from Upton Park) but it really should not be tolerated from a very highly paid professional team.  Nonetheless, a few good performances and wins can easily put the season back on track and there is no better opportunity to start than away to the beleaguered, low-scoring Baggies.

“Okay, we have done it for some of the time this season but you have to do it all the time. That is what serious football at this level is all about; to do it minute after minute, day after day, week after week. That is the key. I’m expecting a big-time response at West Brom. We have to dig in and, if we do that, I fear no-one.”

– Slaven Bilic

All of the noise coming out of the Hawthorns this week has been about the take-over of West Brom by the Chinese businessman, Guochuan Lai, and speculation over the future of manager Tony Pulis (or Nok So Long as he is referred to in the boardroom).  I am not a fan of the Pulis brand of football but he seems a decent enough chap and I am sure realistically he knows that his days are numbered whatever happens on the pitch.  The new owners will want to introduce their own style and culture into the club and can foresee the scenario where the Assistant Referee holds up Number 5 to denote added time and someone runs on with a portion of Chicken Chow Mein.  All in all I think it is a good time to be playing them.

Head to Head

The all-time head to head record between the two clubs is a very even one.  West Ham have won the last two Premier League meetings at the Hawthorns including a commanding 3-0 victory last time out.  If West Ham were to win today it would be only the second time in the Premier League where they have recorded three successive away victories against the same team (Fulham was the first).  These last two victories over Albion, however, were separated by the 4-0 drubbing received in the FA Cup 5th round tie in February 2015; whatever happened to (Tuesday and so slow) Brown Ideye?  The more regular outcome in recent fixtures between the two clubs has been the draw and that must be the minimum requirement from this afternoon. An emphatic win would be the ideal way to celebrate Billy Bonds 70th birthday though.

P W D L F A Sequence
Home 50 25 11 14 102 72 DDWDDD
Away 50 14 11 25 57 91 DDLWLW
Neutral 1 1 0 0 3 0
Total 101 40 22 39 162 163

A former Hammer who has fond memories of West Brom is Brian Dear who scored 5 goals in 20 minutes against them in 1965.  Brian celebrates his birthday tomorrow when he will be 73 years old.

“I think the players are more affected by not getting a new iPhone than they are about whether there is a change of ownership!”

– Tony Pulis

Team News

The long term injuries remain the same and so Ayew, Carroll, Sakho and Cresswell are all continued absentees.  Mark Noble has recovered from a hand injury and is available for selection.  I would be very surprised if James Collins kept his place (Ogbonna to start) and imagine Sam Byram’s place would be under threat if Alvaro Arbeloa was considered ready for first team action.  I think Bilic will stick with Adrian in goal and that Zaza will start again up front.

That leaves the midfield and the enigma of how to combine the available assortment into an effective unit.  Personally, I would start with a proper defensive midfielder (which means one from Oxford, Obiang or Nordtveit) to provide extra protection to the back four.  Antonio and Payet should be certain starters and that leaves another two from Kouyate, Lanzini, Noble, Tore and Feghouli; none of whom qualify on current form as automatic picks.

My preferred eleven for a welcome 2-0 victory would be:

Adrian

Byram  Reid Ogbonna Masuaku

Oxford

Antonio Kouyate Payet Lanzini

Zaza

West Brom are likely to have Solomon Rondon back for this game which is unfortunate as he seems to be their only credible threat; although on our day we can make even a Spurs reject like Chadli look like a world beater.

The Man in the Middle

Today’s referee is the self-important Mark Clattenburg.  Don’t expect at the end of the game to say to your mates “tell you what I didn’t notice the referee today.”

WBA v WHU Preview

Assessing the Hammer’s bouncebackability (© Iain Dowie) for Saturday’s away trip to the Hawthorns.

Embed from Getty Images

As we approach the fifth game of the 2016-17 Premier League campaign I was hoping to be writing this preview with at least six points in the bag. Although no games are that easy, we have faced two of our easier opponents in our first two home league games, and for the fourth season in a row we’ve failed to take maximum points from our opening fixtures. The curse of defeat in the second home game struck again for the fourth season running.  In fact we’ve only won both of our first two home league games twice in this century! If you read social media then of course you will know that it is all the fault of the move to the new stadium. But I seem to recall that when we faced Leicester and Bournemouth at home last season we were playing at “fortress” Upton Park, as we were in the opening games of all those other seasons!

Three points from four games leaves us in 17th place and nine points adrift of the top. It is still early days, of course, and the table can change quite rapidly at this stage. However, another defeat at the Hawthorns would be bad news. We are now approaching a full squad fitness-wise, and we need to show that we have what it takes to bounce back and begin to make a realistic challenge in the top half of the table.

Even after four games, the top seven of Manchester City, Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Arsenal could well be the top seven at the end of the season, albeit not necessarily in that order. We are four points away from the tail end of that group, so if we are to emulate last season’s seventh place finish we can’t afford to fall too far behind. Had we beaten Watford, as we should have done, then the gap would have only been one point.

I doubt that West Brom get too many Midlands ‘neutral’ spectators turning up because of the quality of the entertainment on offer. As befits a Tony Pulis team, they don’t score or concede many goals. Unlike the London Stadium the home fans aren’t on their feet a lot! But Pulis’ non-relegation record (like Big Sam’s) keeps the owners happy, if not the spectators. There have been five goals in their four games this season, scoring two and conceding three. They haven’t won a home game yet, with a goalless draw against Middlesbrough and a defeat to an in-form Everton side. We need to make sure that their home record doesn’t improve at our expense.

I’ve no idea what Slaven Bilic has in mind for his team selection for this game, but based upon the performances against Watford then Adrian, Byram, Collins, Reid, Noble, Lanzini and Kouyate could all potentially be looking over their shoulders to see if others are going to step into their boots for this game. Wholesale changes would be an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to the capitulation against Watford, but I would be surprised if there weren’t at least two or three players replaced to freshen things up.

Reece Oxford was deployed in a defensive midfield capacity for the opening game at Arsenal last season and was magnificent. I’d like to see him given another opportunity in this role. I’m sure he would fit in well in front of the back four, and could drop back to make three centre backs when necessary. Mark Noble has seemed lethargic in the opening games and Kouyate doesn’t seem to be at his best either.

But whatever team he decides upon I’d like to see us open up our away points account in this game. A repeat of last season’s 3-0 win would be great, albeit unlikely, but I’ll take us to reverse our early season form and come away with a 2-1 win.

West Ham v Watford Preview

Slaven’s Selection Dilemma?

Embed from Getty Images

If we are really serious about mixing it with the big boys in the Premier League, and at least matching our seventh place finish last season, then this is a game we really should be winning. Of course no games are that simple to win in the top flight; we have to make sure that we don’t believe that we simply have to turn up to be sure of winning (as per Astra Giurgiu for example), but this should be considered one of the easier ones.

At the time of writing this preview I have no idea how many of the players on our lengthy injury list are ready to return, but I am assuming that the number available has increased somewhat. One thing I do know is that the manager is going to have quite a problem trying to keep all of the squad happy when the majority have returned to fitness. It’s always described as a nice problem to have, and that is true, but how is he going to fit them all in?

We now seem to have a squad where we have at least two quality players vying for every position and that is healthy. We know we have two very capable keepers, and following the last day of the transfer window, two right backs, Byram and Arbeloa, which should finally end the need to put one of the most potent attackers in the Premier League, Antonio, in a position that he very clearly was not comfortable in. Masuaku has slotted in well at left back and Cresswell should have a fight for his place. At centre back we have Reid, Ogbonna, Collins and Oxford. I think the manager believes that the first two are his favourite pairing but I’m not so sure that they play well together. Personally I’d like to see Oxford given more chances; I’m convinced that he is going to be even better than Ferdinand.

We have one of Nordtveit and Obiang in the defensive midfielder position (I prefer the latter, but I don’t think the manager does), Noble and Kouyate (almost guaranteed picks) slightly in front, and that leaves just three more spaces for attacking players to fill if he stays with the 4-1-2-2-1 formation. And what a choice we have to fill those three places. Antonio, Feghouli, Tore, Lanzini, Payet, Ayew, Zaza, Carroll, Fletcher, Calleri. Ten into three doesn’t fit comfortably! And to think I read that some people weren’t comfortable that we let Valencia go! And of course we still have Sakho at the club. Paddy Power has him at 9-2 favourite to score the first goal in the Watford game! Do they know something we don’t? Or are they just totally out of date?

We have to remember that it was the results against “lesser” sides that let us down last season, and we have to put that right.

And one player I haven’t mentioned yet is our young Swiss signing Edimilson Fernandes (sounds Brazilian but is Swiss). Despite his age he has played 66 games in the Sion first team, including eight matches in last season’s Europa League where Sion finished second in their group to Liverpool, and only lost narrowly 4-3 to Braga of Portugal in the round of 32. Braga reached the quarter final. He therefore has much more recent European experience than most of our players! I would liken him most in style and position to Kouyate. I think we have a real prospect here, but like Oxford, and other promising youngsters not even mentioned above, I wonder if they will ever get the chance to break through.

Our opponents Watford are already sitting in the drop zone, albeit after just three games, and relatively difficult ones at that. They have lost at home to both Arsenal and Chelsea (1-3 and 1-2) and drawn 1-1 at Southampton. Notably, they have scored in each game played, and were unlucky to lose to a late goal against Chelsea when many believe that the scorer, Costa, shouldn’t have been on the field. Where have I heard that one before? They will be desperate to record their first win of the season and not get embroiled in the relegation dogfight so early. Of course if they beat us they will go ahead of us. However I am confident that we will finally get our season really underway with a good performance and win the game 3-1. This would take us up to six points from four games played which would match last year’s opening.

The fixtures running up to the next international break (yes only four league games until we break again!) are ones that will begin to define whether or not our season can match the success of the last one. Three home games (Watford, Southampton, Middlesbrough) and a visit to West Brom does not constitute the toughest run of fixtures that we will have. If we really mean business then I’d like to see 12 points (or at the very least 9 or 10). Anything less than that will not really be good enough to push towards a top eight place. We have to remember that it was the results against “lesser” sides that let us down last season, and we have to put that right.

Matchday: Man City v West Ham

Pre-match tension as West Ham look to pull off another shock at the Etihad Stadium.

Man City AwayThey used to say that lightning never strikes the same place twice.  Although our friends from Giurgiu have already dispelled that particular myth there is little confidence that the same repeat performance will apply to our game against Manchester City this afternoon.

When we visited the Etihad last September, City had won all 5 league games that season without conceding a single goal.  Against all odds and expectations goals from Moses and Sakho saw the Hammers take a splendid 2 goal lead and despite City pulling one back in first half added time, through debutant Kevin De Bruyne, we were able to hang on doggedly adding one more away-day scalp to those already collected at Arsenal and Liverpool.  I didn’t expect victory then and I don’t expect it again today.  Hope, on the other hand, is always a constant companion.

Head to Head

We have won 11 times in 50 away fixtures to Manchester City and just once since their move to the Etihad.  The overall record between the two clubs was fairly equal until the injection of Abu Dhabi money tilted the balance firmly in City’s favour.  We have won just 2 of the last 12 encounters as the one time working man’s club from Manchester became a Middle Eastern money pit.  Having invested a further £100 million + during the current transfer window to mould the team in Pep’s image, the total spending since the  takeover is now nudging towards £1 billion.  City could most likely field a complete team who individually cost more than our new record signing.

The full head to head record is as follows:

P W D L F A Sequence
Home 48 24 12 12 81 52 LDLLWD
Away 50 11 7 32 64 102 LLLLLW
98 35 19 44 145 154

Team News

Definitely sitting this one out are Sakho, Cresswell, Carroll, Ayew, Feghouli and Nordtvelt who are all injured.  Mark Noble is expected to return while it is reported that the fitness of Payet and Lanzini are yet to be assessed.  With an extra week for an international break on the horizon I doubt either will start with only one on the bench.  There are unconfirmed rumours that Payet has not travelled which is likely to raise speculation once more about his future.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it this season. We know it’s a big challenge, not only regarding our injury situation, but we are hoping and our whole plan is to have a good game and to get something out of it.”

– Super Slav

The signing of Simone Zaza was too late for today’s match but it will be interesting to see whether Edimilson Fernandes features or is regarded merely as one for the future.  Fortunately Zaza has been omitted from the Italy squad and so will not be able to pick up an injury while on international duty.

With no proven striker available and the creative players still missing it is difficult to see how we could possibly surprise City again today.  My own suggested would include starts for both Oxford and Fletcher:

Team Man City

The Man in the Middle

Today’s referee is Andre Mariner from Birmingham.  Mariner officiated in two of our home games last season; the goalless draw with Stoke in December and the derailing of Spurs title aspirations in March.  We should hope that he has a quiet game and does not feel he has to get in on the dubious penalty award at a corner bandwagon.

Preview: West Ham v Manchester City

I Have a Dream! West Ham make the trip north to face Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.

West Ham at Man CityI had a strange dream last night. No, not that kind of dream! I was appearing on a quiz show and was just being asked the £1 million question. The quiz show itself was a mixture of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, A Question of Sport, Mastermind and Deal or No Deal. One minute I was facing Chris Tarrant, then Sue Barker, then Magnus Magnusson and then Noel Edmonds. I was sitting on a chair in front of an audience, then I was part of a team with Phil Tufnell, then I was on a black chair in darkness, and finally Noel Edmonds was asking me the question, Deal or No Deal, only to be interrupted by a telephone call from the banker, who then wanted to make me another offer.

The question I was being asked was “What Happened Next?” Four football matches were being described to me and I had to select the correct answer to win the money. In the first game West Ham were playing Manchester City and were winning the game 4-1, then in the second game West Ham were again playing City and once again were leading 4-1. In the third game I had the same situation, West Ham were beating Manchester City 4-1 close to the end of the game. And yes you’ve guessed it, the fourth game was exactly the same, we were beating them 4-1.

I was confused. I kept telling them there were four different answers. Chris Tarrant wanted to know if I wanted to phone a friend, Magnus said he’d started so he’d finish, Matt Dawson was in fits of laughter, Jeremy Paxman was telling me I’d have to hurry (how did University Challenge get in?), Noel Edmonds wanted to know if I wanted to swap my box, and the phone was ringing. I told them there were different occasions when we were beating City 4-1, how could I know what one they were referring to? Thankfully, at that point I woke up in a sweat. Yes, it has been very warm at night lately.

I can only blame myself. I was thinking about this week’s game at the Etihad and before going to bed I was looking back on previous memorable encounters with City that I remember well. There was the game at Maine Road in 1970 at Maine Road when Jimmy Greaves made his debut for us and scored twice, Ronnie Boyce scored from the half way line and we won the game 5-1, to gain our revenge on a 4-0 home defeat to them just three months earlier.

Then there was a game at Upton Park about twelve years later when Sandy Clark scored a brace (don’t you just love that phrase) in a 4-1 win. Then in 1996 Iain Dowie scored a couple of goals as we thrashed them 4-2, again at Upton Park, with Niall Quinn scoring City’s second as the referee blew the final whistle. Lastly in November 2000, we recovered from a half-time 1-0 deficit, with goals from Steve Lomas, Stuart Pearce, Trevor Sinclair (all three of whom ironically have a City connection) and finally a penalty from Paolo in the last minute to record another 4-1 victory.

So what will happen on Sunday? We have a mounting injury crisis which shows little sign of ending. Last September when we surprisingly won the away game 2-1 we had the following starting line-up: Adrian, Jenkinson, Tomkins, Reid, Cresswell, Noble, Obiang, Lanzini, Payet, Moses and Sakho. The goals were scored by Moses and Sakho. Antonio, Jelavic and Collins were second half substitutes. It was one of our famous away victories in the last campaign. How times change. How many of that starting line-up will begin Sunday’s game?

When the return fixture was played at Upton Park in January, Valencia scored twice in a 2-2 draw, making it four goals that he scored in under a fortnight. How many goals has he scored since that game?

In my lifetime I can only ever recall one goalless draw in an away league game at City (in 1994) and I don’t expect another this weekend. I have a feeling that the score may be 4-1, and that we will be on the losing end. I hope not, but our performances to date have not been encouraging. But even if we do lose the game we will still be on three points, exactly the same tally as we had after three games last season. And this time, two of the season’s toughest away games will have been played, whereas last season two of our first three games were at home.

Despite Thursday’s poor show, it’s not all doom and gloom. We can dream that it will get better. And congratulations to Adrian on his first call up to the Spanish squad. Perhaps he can keep a clean sheet to celebrate?

West Ham v Astra Giurgiu Preview

Our gateway to the league group stage of the Europa League?

west ham v astra 2015For the second time in a week and the fourth time in a year we are playing Astra Giurgiu of Romania. This time it is for a place in the group stage of the Europa League which will mean an additional six Thursday games between now and the end of the year if we overcome them successfully. Will we be able to cope if we get through?

Last Thursday we drew 1-1 in Romania. The result should have been so much better. Shortly before the Astra equaliser we missed a really good opportunity to extend our lead to 2-0 which would have put us in a very strong position for the second leg. But it was not to be so we go into this game all square with an away goal.

We were not particularly impressive in our opening Premier League game on Sunday but nevertheless we claimed three points with Antonio’s late goal. It is still early in the season and we have many first choice players unavailable at the moment so let’s not get too disheartened. Some people on social media are really depressed about the way we have started but there is a long way to go this season. And if you compare the same games with last season (when we lost at home to Bournemouth and drew away at Chelsea) then we are already two points better off!

Astra Giurgiu may be the Romanian champions but they are in disarray as a club. They have numerous off field problems which are well documented, and their league performances are going from bad to worse. Before we played them last week they sat in ninth place in their domestic league. At the weekend they took a 5-1 hammering at CFR Cluj and have now sunk into eleventh place. They would be even lower if it wasn’t for teams close to the bottom (including CFR Cluj) who have had points deducted this season for “irregularities”.

So this game should be straightforward, shouldn’t it? If we put out a half decent team (and Slav has confirmed that we are taking this competition seriously) then there is no reason why we shouldn’t progress comfortably into the group stage. Scoring seems to be our problem but hopefully we will have some of our creative players back (Dimi and Manu?) and open up their defence at will. An early goal or two would be good – I am hoping for a 3-0 win at least.

The group stage draw takes place in Monaco on Friday with the first two Europa league games scheduled for 15th and 29th September, which are prior to our weekend games away at West Brom and then home to Middlesbrough. The next two European games are scheduled for 20th October and 3rd November, prior to the Premier League games at home to Sunderland and Stoke. So if we get through this match, and you prefer your Saturday games, you should savour our home game against Watford on Saturday 10th September which kicks off at 3pm. Because if we beat Astra, the Watford game will be our only Saturday game in the first half of the season until at least December!  I hope you are free on Sundays!

Match Scene: West Ham v Bournemouth

The latest in the series of first ever games at the new stadium.

West Ham BournemouthSo after the actual opening game and the official opening game we are finally getting down to the real business of the opening league fixture at the new Stratford stadium.  In the process we will be setting a new club record home league attendance surpassing the 42,322 (including my teenage self) that were squeezed into Upton Park for the 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur in October 1970.

Today’s visitors may now have taken on our pre-state aid mantle of everyone’s second favourite team following their unlikely (usually termed as fairy-tale) rise from the lower reaches of the league pyramid to the very top table of English football.  A creditable mid-table finish last season did nothing to diminish the reputation of bobby-dazzling Bournemouth manager, Eddie Howe – only signing Jordan Ibe for £15 million has been able to do that.

“You can’t expect seven goals in any game nowadays but they happen, I expect us to be much more concentrated and much more solid than we were in that game.”

– Super Slav

Head to Head

There is only a 7 match history between the two teams.  The first meeting was a 5th round cup tie in 1929 against the then Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic was followed by a 60 year wait for re-match against an AFC Bournemouth side managed by Harry Redknapp.  Last season’s match at Upton Park was the first Hammer’s defeat in the series; the full record is shown below:

P W D L F A Sequence
Home 4 3 0 1 12 6 WWWL
Away 3 1 2 0 5 3 DDW
Total 7 4 2 1 17 9

Team News

Rumours circulating on the internet suggest that every West Ham outfield player, with the exception of Mark Noble, is unavailable through injury for this game.  Our usual inside Under The Hammers sources were too busy taking out the bins to either confirm or deny the reports which have, in any case, been made up in a poorly disguised attempt to get visitors to the site.

“The obvious threat is with Andy Carroll’s aerial ability and that is a threat we are going to have to try to counteract.  “He is slightly different and is quite unique in this day and age. If you go back 10 to 15 years, there were a lot of similar type strikers in a similar mould and, in the Premier League, the majority of those players have gone.”

– Eddie Howe

Longer term injuries continue to plague Ayew, Cresswell, Lanzini, Sakho and Feghouli and none will be available for consideration today.  Physio Room also shows Payet and Nordtvelt suffering from knocks but there is nothing on Kouyate who sat out the midweek match in Romania, again with an apparent knock.  More speculative chatter, which to be honest would be no big surprise, is that Andy Carroll is broken again – once again proving that he is ‘unplayable’.  I also came across comments by Slaven Bilic about not rushing Payet back to the action following his exertions at the Euros so maybe he is still a little tired, bless!

Former Hammer, Junior Stanislas, who has just signed a new 3 year deal with Bournemouth is absent from their squad (with a scary sounding inguinal hernia injury) but new signing Marc Wilson, formerly of Stoke City, may make a first start.

The Man in the Middle

Today’s potential short-sighted official is Craig Pawson from South Yorkshire.  Pawson, who as luck would have it is a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, took charge of the two exciting home draws against Manchester City and Arsenal last term.  You may remember it was Pawson who did the double dirty on Manuel Lanzini in the latter match by incorrectly disallowing a headed (what would have been opening) goal and then denying a blatant penalty following a foul challenge by Bellerin.  Suffice to say that Craig owes us one.