West Ham 0 v 1 Astra Giurgiu

Just Not Good Enough! When you set out for a walk in the park and end up flat on your face.

Angry Slaven BilicAs Super Slav sat down to select his team and squad to face Romanian champions Astra Giurgiu, he was fully aware of the delicate balancing act needed to win the game and hence qualify for the Europa League group stage, whilst at the same time not compromising his team selection for the difficult away Premier League game at Manchester City on Sunday. He was unable to do this last season but now had a much stronger squad to pick from despite the injuries and unavailable players. Or so we thought. He stated this was his strongest possible team. Captain Mark Noble had a slight knock and was not risked. It was disappointing to see Randolf displayed on the scoreboard instead of Randolph. It was even more disappointing to see Bilic start with just one forward in a home game against a team as poor as this.

On eight minutes Calleri, following a superb through ball from Burke, found himself one on one with the keeper and should have scored, but just like the last minute of the Bournemouth game, failed to do so. Full backs Byram and Burke caught the eye early on, and a superb strike from Obiang on 14 minutes came close to breaking the deadlock. But we weren’t showing enough urgency. We were moving the ball too slowly. Surely we weren’t playing for a 0-0 draw?

The German referee tried to keep the game flowing when Romanians were committing fouls, but seemed to be pulling us up regularly. Half time had almost arrived when the 35 year old ex-West Brom player Teixeira finished off a slick move reminiscent of one of the Juventus goals a couple of weeks back. Unfortunately the Astra counter attack was created by Byram and Burke perhaps revealing their inexperience. Oh how we longed for the creativity of a Payet, Lanzini, or Feghouli to come off the bench in the second half, but of course none of them were available.

Astra had only kept one clean sheet in twelve previous away games in Europe and that was in Scotland at Inverness. Surely it was only a matter of time before we equalised? We raised the tempo early in the second half and Calleri missed a header that Sandra Redknapp would have scored. Fletcher, who was one of the only players who could be happy with his performance, could have had a penalty, and should have scored from six yards but aimed straight at the keeper. But he was only the second choice attacking substitute and had barely half an hour to make his mark.

Valencia had come on at half time, but apart from one half decent free kick, just did his usual running down blind alleys. Antonio missed a header, albeit not as easy as you might think, from about four yards out. We continued to press forward, but a long time before the end of the game you just knew we weren’t going to score. And we didn’t. In some ways it was reminiscent of watching England play Poland in 1973. Just as then we thought we only had to turn up to win.

The German referee fell for all the Astra spoiling tactics and had a shocking game. But so did so many of our team who just weren’t good enough. If you could have seen that coming you could have made a lot of money. Astra were 8/1 with the bookies at the start. Some West Ham fans were fighting each other. The stewards let them get on with it. The crowd were getting very hostile. If only we’d seen more fight from the players, especially in the first half. According to reports Simone Zaza is expected to sign for us on Friday. I wonder if he was watching tonight?

Match Scene: West Ham v Astra Giurgiu

Surely a walk in the Olympic Park tonight and guaranteed Europa League group stage qualification.

Home to AstraTonight the nomads of FC Astra Giurgiu are the visitors to the London Stadium for the Europa League Play Off Round second leg match. With the tie finally balanced at a goal apiece from the away leg in Romania it will be an evening high on expectation but no doubt with a drop of typical West Ham nerve-wracking tension thrown in.

Many an old timer will be more than pleased to tell you for the price of half a pint of stout and an arrowroot biscuit that their favourite Upton Park night was the European Cup Winners Cup (ECWC) semi final second leg against Eintract Frankfurt in 1976. (I always maintain that the ECWC was a superior and far more difficult competition to succeed in than the old European Cup; contested as it was by teams proven to be good at winning cups.)

Going in to the game 2-1 down from the first leg it was a night where Sir Trev imperiously glided over the sodden pitch surface; scoring twice as the Hammers raced into a 3-0 lead. Fearing that this lacked the requisite drama, the Germans were gifted a late goal meaning that if they scored again it would be they to go through on the away goals rule. Cue a whistle blowing, nail biting, nervous hopping finale.

“They beat us last year and it is not job done. We have had enough time to recover from Sunday and I am optimistic.”

– Super Slav

I fully expect something similar to happen tonight. Cruise into a two goal lead, take the foot off the pedal, concede a sloppy goal, followed by an exhibition of sloppy slapstick defending before scoring a breakaway third in added time.

Head to Head

This is our fourth encounter against the current Romanian champions and, to date, we have yet to beat them (2 draws and 1 defeat). I have seen many reports stating that we lost to Astra at the same stage last year but this is not the case – we have progressed a whole round further so far this time around. Romainian champions they may be but I fully expect us to get the win that secures group stage qualification – but then I have been disappointed (and wrong) before.

Team News

The usual suspects of Cresswell, Carroll, Ayew, Sakho and Feghouli remain absent injured. Masuaku and Lanzini are not registered to play tonight but Dimitri Payet may now be available. Slaven Bilic has suggested that it will be a strong side and it will be a balance between doing what is necessary and keeping fresh legs for Sunday’s trip to the Etihad.

In the unlikely event that I were asked to pick the team I would start with Payet, to give him some match time and look for an early advantage, but leave Noble and Kouyate on the bench until needed; as both could do with a breather. This is how I would line-up (subject to availability):

My team v Astra

The Man in the Middle

We have a German referee tonight in the shape of Manuel Grafe from Berlin. Grafe was the ref for the goalless Euro 2012 qualifier between England and Montenegro where he was ‘blasted’ by Wayne Rooney for giving England’s players “no protection whatsoever” – and for not awarding any penalties.

Stand Up If You Love West Ham?

Could this become the biggest controversy at West Ham since the Bond Scheme?

Standing at Olympic StadiumMy first visit to Upton Park was in 1958. I was four years old. I sat in the stand. B Block in the old West Stand to be precise. When I was old enough to go with friends we always stood. The North Bank was our position of choice for many years. I stood when over 42,000 crammed into the ground against Tottenham one day. We could barely move. But we were young and we didn’t care. It was more fun to watch a game whilst standing on the terraces. It was all we could afford anyway.

But in 1989 a disaster in Sheffield led to a review of the law relating to safety certificates being issued at football stadiums. They became all-seater at Premier League grounds more than twenty years ago, and despite many people wanting safe standing areas, they remain so. Many would welcome these areas but it would require legal changes for it to happen. Just because unofficial standing areas became the norm at Upton Park, usually in the lower areas, and a blind eye appeared to be turned, it doesn’t mean that it is a right now that we have moved into a new stadium. Many who don’t wish to stand (or in fact cannot stand) are inconvenienced because of their position in the ground.

At Upton Park fans knew where the unofficial standing areas were and migrated to them accordingly if they wished to stand. Moving to a new stadium has meant that these unofficial areas have not yet been established and this has therefore exacerbated the issue.

We could have had 60,000 for the visit of Bournemouth. But this had to be reduced to 57,000 as we couldn’t get a safety certificate for the higher figure. Who is to say that this won’t get reduced further if the standing persists? With 52,000 season ticket holders and tickets for away fans then this only left around 2,000 tickets available for people who are unable to get a season ticket. And we are told there are thousands on the waiting list. The club would like to increase the capacity to 66,000 to accommodate the demand, but this looks increasingly unlikely whilst some supporters continue to defy the rules because they believe it is their right to stand.

Now I prefer to sit to watch football. I am not one of the new breed of supporters (Essex middle class was the term used by one standing fan). I have been a regular for nearly 60 years and I have reached an age where a day out to watch football involves a lot of standing and walking, and I prefer to watch the game in relative comfort sitting down. I join in with Bubbles, and I shout and scream as the game is on. I leap to my feet when a goal is scored. When I get home I have often got a very hoarse voice. I am as passionate about West Ham as I was in the sixties, seventies and eighties when I stood on the North Bank. But I don’t have to stand up to show my passion.

The new stadium is infinitely more comfortable than Upton Park. I am lucky in that I sit in an upper tier where others are also seated. As I looked down at the Bournemouth game I could see the problems and conflict arising. Many stood in defiance because they believe it is their right. Throughout the game many faced away from the game with their arms aloft and started the chant “Stand up if you love West Ham”. I love West Ham but I don’t have to stand to prove it. This was followed frequently with “We’re West Ham United, we stand if we want.” These fans are not concerned about the consequences of their actions. They don’t seem to care if they mar the enjoyment of others. They don’t care that fewer can get tickets.

The Names They Are a-Changin’

A look at the top 10 all-time most popular forenames for West Ham players.

NamesWest Ham famously won the FA Cup in 1964, and again in 1975, with a team full of Englishmen. The 1975 team being the last all English winners of the cup. By 1980 the rot had set in with the inclusion of a single Scot in the form of Ray ‘Tonka’ Stewart.

The lineup back in those days would be full of what Al Murray (the Pub Landlord) would describe as beautiful British names. The team would be populated by players with old fashioned names such as Jim, John, Jack, Eddie, Bobby, Billy, Alan, Ken and Trevor. Scan down any West Ham team-sheet this season and you will find the likes of Adrian, Dimitri, Manuel, Cheikhou, Pedro, Gokhan, Enner, Diafra, Havard and Sofiane.

As an aside, I can remember Ron Greenwood trying to sign Israeli international Mordecai Spiegler after the 1970 World Cup (and I actually witnessed him in a West Ham shirt in a pre-season friendly against the Orient) but numerous obstacles surrounding international clearance and work permits prevented the deal going through. In different circumstances there could have been an Israeli in the 1975 cup winning team.

The foreign player is now a fixture of Premier League football and arguably the most skillful, entertaining and creative players are all from overseas. English players accounted for just 31% of Premier League starts during 2015/16 while West Ham were just above average with 36% (or 42% if you count British and Irish players). With James Tomkins having left the club, Aaron Cresswell injured and (as yet) no home grown recruits no the English contingent will no doubt show a downward trend this time around.

At least one of our new signings comes with a traditional name that would meet the Pub Landlord’s approval and that is Arthur Masuaku. It is perhaps surprising that only 12 Arthurs have ever played for West Ham (including Thames Ironworks) and that Masuaku is only the second ever post war Arthur. I know this piece of useful information because in an idle hour during the summer I crunched the data to discover what were the most common West Ham forenames.

The winner by some distance was William (including Bill and Billy) with 67 occurrences. There was stiffer competition for the runner-up spot where John (42) just pipped James (41) and George (40).

The complete Top 10 is:

  1. William (67)
  2. John (42)
  3. James (41)
  4. George (40)
  5. Tom (31)
  6. Robert (26)
  7. David (23)
  8. Harry (21)
  9. Frank (20)
  10. Fred (19)

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!

Spotlight on the Officials

A quick look at some of the decisions made by the referees this weekend.

RefereeingTraditionally it has always been said that if you don’t notice a referee in a game of football then he’s had a good game. To some extent this is true. Referees and their assistants do have assessors in the stands at every game feeding back on their performance so in theory their decisions (or non-decisions) are scrutinised carefully. But if a referee doesn’t get a mention in a newspaper or media report on a game then he should normally be pleased. Although some do court the attention and believe they are on a par with the players in providing the entertainment.

All officials will continue to make mistakes (as we all do in life), and until some form of video technology is introduced then these errors will continue to be highlighted, and can have a significant outcome on the results of games. The concept of using video referees in the stands is something that is gaining momentum, and something I am wholly in favour of. The technology is there, although we have to be careful how it is used. I will expand upon how it can be introduced at a later date, but I believe it is urgently needed to minimise the errors made by the officials. I have heard that generally they are in favour themselves and would welcome the help it would give them. In the meantime I have noted a few issues that have come up even at this early stage of the season.

Last weekend Jon Moss took charge of the Watford v Chelsea game. Apart from missing one of the most blatant handballs you will ever see when Cathcart handled from a corner, Moss also failed to send off Costa for simulation (diving to most of us) after he had booked him for dissent earlier in the game. This meant he was still on the field when he shouldn’t have been to score the winning goal late in the game. Ring any bells? Oh yes Anthony Taylor failed to send him off for his disgraceful challenge on Adrian, after he had previously booked him for dissent just a few days earlier. The result of all this? Chelsea have got six points this season after two games when some might argue they should only have two. Those points might be very important in the final analysis. I remember Mr. Moss well for what I believe were important decisions against us at Leicester last season and at Tottenham the season before. 95th minute penalties if I recall correctly?

“Perhaps the first on Drinkwater was debatable, but the second was cast-iron, stonewall, nailed-on, or whatever you would like to call it.”

Tony Pulis’ teams have I believe, got away with American Football style blocking in the penalty area at set pieces for some years. Perhaps they aren’t the only ones, but Stoke always stood out for me in this respect, and latterly West Brom are the same. Last weekend from a corner, Berahinho was detailed to “look after” the Everton keeper (Stekelenburg?) and backed him into the net as a corner came across allowing McAuley a free header to score. Not the first time the Albion have used this ploy. It was so obvious to see on TV but did Mr. Swarbrick see it? Apparently not.

I’ve always thought that Mark Clattenburg reminded me of somebody but I didn’t realise who until I saw him shake hands with Koscielny of Arsenal at the end of the game at Leicester. Last season Leicester were awarded a scandalous number of penalties and followed this up with one in their first game of the season at Hull. But I wonder if Mr. Clattenburg has cottoned on to this, as he denied them two fairly clear-cut spot kick awards in the game against the Gunners. Perhaps the first on Drinkwater was debatable, but the second was cast-iron, stonewall, nailed-on, or whatever you would like to call it. He was possibly the only person who saw it who didn’t think so. Perhaps he is single-handedly giving Leicester their comeuppance for some “dubious” penalty awards in the past year.

Well done to Mike Dean who appears to have started a one-man crusade against holding in the penalty area at corners. He awarded two penalties for this infringement in the Stoke v Man. City game and is to be congratulated in his stance to try to eradicate this nonsense from the game. But he doesn’t appear to have been backed up by referees elsewhere even though it was an issue they were going to tackle this season. Unless this is applied consistently then it will continue to spoil games. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Dean keeps it up, or if he gets criticised by the assessors for this.

My award for referee of the week goes to Craig Pawson who refereed our game v Bournemouth. I have been critical of him in the past (Arsenal last season) but felt he was spot on throughout the game and got most decisions right. He tried to let the game flow, but stopped it when he had to. He certainly made fewer mistakes than many of the players on view.

5 Things from Matchweek 2

Assorted observations and time wasting from this week’s Premier League

1.     Sledgehammer seeks nut.

In football, as in life, when a perceived problem is identified the authorities like to introduce a new law (or a new interpretaion of an old one) which is then applied zealously across the board with no room for common sense.  In the FA’s crosshairs this time are the shenanigans at corners and player dissent.

Five Things EPLThe hottest pundit “talking point” of the weekend were the two penalties awarded by Mike Dean in the Stoke v Man City encounter as a result of pushing and shoving in the area.  Certainly in most games neither incident would have been punished and yet in both incidents the offending player was clearly impeding an opponent.  In fact what was Sterling thinking when he had already seen Shawcross pulled up earlier in the game for a similar episode.  It will be interesting to see how this pans out as the letter of the law would result in numerous penalties in each game (just like Rugby).

Many players have already found themselves booked in the “crackdown” on dissent.  In our own game Arter of Bournemouth and Winston Reid both fell foul of the new ruling although neither had erupted into a nything like a twisted Vardy-esque red faced tirade.  Maybe another approach to this problem is refs stopping making bad decisions.

2.     Old Hammers, they fade and die

A few ex-Hammers were plying their trade in the Premier League over the weekend.  Former favourite and Basildon boy James Tomkins got to make his debut as a second half substitute for Crystal Palace at White Hart Lane.  It was not up there with the greatest dream debuts as Wanyama headed the winner just seconds after Tomka coming on.

The Tyne – Wear derby pitched number 2 pantomime villain, Jermaine Defoe against Stewart Downing.  A quiet day for Defoe who apart from one half chance where he might have done better he was unable to make any impression.  Downing in his usual manner spent most of the match getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible if there was any danger of a challenge looming.  At least he was able to pick up a win bonus.

3.     The many lives of Diego Costa

As former referee Howard Webb explained “Diego Costa was lucky to be playing at all on Saturday and lucky to still be on the pitch to score the winner.”  So having escaped dismissal and scoring a late winner against us there is a repeat performance just one week later against Watford.  He was booked once more for dissent by Jon Moss who then saw fit to turn a blind eye to blatant simulation before he once again proved to be a late match-winner.  This is not the first blatant dive that has gone unpunished in the first two weeks of the season.  Perhaps the new focus on interference at corners has taken the referee’s eye off the simulation ball.

4.     Black Cats nine lives to be put to the test again

Some things never change and yet again Sunderland have decided to sit out the first part of the season like a pole-vaulter who believes the early rounds of competition are beneath him.  The usual routine is to secure an early berth in the bottom 3 until the new year, replace the manager and then embark on a rip roaring, roller coaster escape ride to safety.  Early signs are that David Moyes is not equipped to threaten that tradition and so should be ready to dust off his CV come the Spring.

5.     The Manager’s New Clothes

Managers get far more screen time during TV coverage these days and as a consequence I have been drawn to a sartorial comparison of their matchday apparel.   There are two main camps in manager attire; those who like to turn out suited and booted and those who prefer the hands-on tracksuited look.  Here are my first thoughts of the men strutting the technical area catwalk at the weekend.

Of the suits, Ranieri was by far the smartest and almost immaculate; with an honorable mention to the increasingly distinguished Mark Hughes.  Pardew sported the look of an inebriated uncle at a wedding having just danced the macarana while Conte was had that flustered local government official look.  Appropriately for the Sunday match, Moyes and Karanka had dressed ready for Chapel while Slav is more ticket tout or used car salesman.

Klopp with BrainsTony Pulis is the standard bearer for the tracksuiters, complete with embroidered initials in case he forgets who he is,  and is joined by Klopp and Howe.  The loose limbed Klopp is one of those people who will look untidy no matter what he wears and he somehow reminds me of how Thunderbird puppet Brains would look should he be infected by an out of control growth hormone.

For completeness we should also mention the smart-casuals whose numbers include Dyche and Pochettino, both of who could easily pass for the manager of a fast food restaurant.