I will be honest but I never believed this day – the resumption of West Ham’s 2019/20 league campaign – would ever actually happen. Now it is here, I confess to being nervously apprehensive. The immediate fate of our club is to be decided on the outcome of nine relegation threatened matches played over five short weeks. Survival is contingent on the level of readiness and the appetite for a fight – characteristics that have rarely been freely associated with the Hammers for much of their recent history.
Mark Noble says “we’ve worked hard and the boys look ready”. No doubt, other club captains have been saying the same thing. Is it likely that our preparations have been as good as or better than others? Arguably West Ham have technically better players than their relegation rivals, but will David Moyes be able to instil the right levels of motivation, effort and organisation to quickly recover the momentum that he says was building before the shutdown?
It is over three months since West Ham last played – about as long as a normal close season – but with only a few weeks to prepare for battle. Yet unlike a new season which will kick-off again in the same circumstances as the last season ended, this time, so much has changed – it really is a whole new ball game!
Empty echoing cavernous stadiums, atmospheric TV crowd noise, cardboard cutout supporters (aka Arsenal fans), free to air TV, more badges on the shirt than Bear Grylls, nine bottoms on the bench, five available subs and a designated goal celebration zone. I eagerly await the choreographed Tik Tok inspired celebration routines from Michail Antonio. A far cry from the congratulatory pat on the back and manly handshake that Bobby Moore would have expected back in the day.
This new normal will be far more of a squad game than it had been pre-virus – if fitness is to be preserved and niggling injuries avoided (what are the chances?) The squad still has a surplus of midfield players but an absence of suitable cover at the back and up front. Injuries to key players will have significant repercussions.
Today’s starting lineup is difficult to call and contingent upon the availability of Angelo Ogbonna and Noble. Speculation from in-the-know club insiders is that Declan Rice may need to slot in at centre back if Ogbonna is absent – rather than risk the wayward Fabian Balbuena – but can that be possible if Noble is not ready to partner Tomas Soucek in central midfield? Going into the game with just one anchor in midfield would be asking for trouble it needs two from Rice, Soucek and Noble to play that role.
Fingers crossed that we can avoid seeing Noble and Robert Snodgrass on the pitch at the same time, and that we have seen the very last of Carlos Sanchez. It would also be an opportune time for the likes of Felipe Anderson, Jack Wilshere and Pablo Fornals to earn their corn. I will be intrigued to see how Moyes approaches substitutions, something that he is often reluctant to make use of. Not one after the hour and the other four in the 87th minute I hope.
Back in March the collective endeavour of Antonio, Sebastien Haller and Jarrod Bowen was starting to look promising and I am looking forward to seeing them pick up where they left off today. There is plenty there to cause the visitors problems and, just as importantly, to keep their wing backs occupied when we are not in possession.
Although, I do not know all the background to the Jeremy Ngakia kerfuffle, it has all the hallmarks of a very West Ham cock-up. With justifiable concerns over the fitness of right back alternatives – Ryan Fredericks, Ben Johnson and Pablo Zabaleta – for such an intense run of games, the services of the want-away Ngakia may well be crucial between now and the end of the month.
Today’s opposition, Wolverhampton Wanderers had been experiencing a tremendous season prior to the March shutdown. Seventh in the league and still with an interest in the Europa League, it will be no surprise if Nuno Espirito Santo (the best name in football management) has his players fully fired up for the restart. You will remember that we were originally due to play them on a Sunday afternoon in the wake of an arduous midweek journey to play a Europa League tie in Greece. In my opinion, and in the interests of fairness, they should have been compelled to take an equivalent difficult trek in the days leading up to today’s fixture.
I’m not sure I am totally onboard with the notion that the greatest Wolves threat is posed by Adama Traore, at least not consistently. He alternates between being the master of running the ball out of play at dazzling speed, and spells of being mesmerisingly unplayable – an Antonio with ball control, but without the aerial threat. Of course, it is the West Ham way for players such as these to save their best for games against us.
For me, it is the Portuguese trio of Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota that make Wolves tick and present the greatest danger. Add in Raul Jimenez (a Mexican striker more suited to English football) and our players must take heed of that sage old advice to stay alert. Far too frequently our defenders play like they are statues, and we must ensure that none are toppled today.
The welcome return of football brings with it the vagaries and inconsistency of refereeing decisons. It did not take long for the restart to become embroiled in officiating controversy, with the failure to award a clear goal to Sheffield United at Villa Park on Wednesday evening. I can just about accept the chance in a million occlusion experienced by Hawkeye, but what were the referee and VAR doing? Like someone who relies entirely on GPS to reach their destination, they had no clue what to do when the technology failed them. Technology is meant to ‘assist’ the referee, not take all the decisions for them. Today’s allocation from officialdom are Anthony Taylor (ref) and David Coote (VAR).
Each of today’s four games will have a significant impact on the bottom of the table. With West Ham on third, I wonder if the outcome of events at Watford and Brighton will affect the mood at the London Stadium? Hitting the ground running has never been more important. Lawro thinks West Ham will win (1-0), Charlie Nicholas sees it as one apiece. On this occasion I will be completely ruled by my heart and opt for a 2-0 home win.