Hammers Hoping To Upset The Clarets And Stop The Fat Lady From Singing Too Early

Injuries remain a concern but Moyes playing with a full deck can keep the European dream alive until the final day of the season

In an unusual turn of events, the weekend’s Super Sunday was thrown into disarray by a pitch invasion at an empty Old Trafford. Unexpected as it was, it is perhaps not surprising that something like this has happened. Authorities do not like it when the hoi polloi take direct action, but if complaints are persistently ignored, then frustrations will eventually boil over. Incidents of violence should not be condoned, but that is not the main story here. The continued hijacking of the national game by mega business interests, sovereign states and private equity funds cannot proceed unchecked. The aborted ESL plans have brought the issue to a head and must be addressed before the next inevitable power grab raises its ugly head.

What the fall-out from the postponement will be can only be speculated on. A deathly silence remains on the sanctions yet to be applied to the sordid six for their original breach of Premier League rules. Given that rulings generally work against the interest of West Ham, I expect Liverpool to be awarded last night’s match as a walkover with Manchester United docked just enough points not to threaten their top four status.

It was interesting to hear David Moyes raise the issue of the Hammer’s treatment by referees and the league in the wake of the Fabian Balbuena red card debacle. Having had five of the last straight red cards overturned should be raising alarm bells, even at the FA. It’s a while since I studied probability, but if we assume the likelihood of a card being overturned is 10%, then five out of eight equates to a seven in a million chance of being random. Perhaps I have worked that out wrong, but said with enough confidence, people will believe it!

I was quite surprised at the number of pundits coming out in support of the referee’s decision. Too many basing their opinion incorrectly, it seems, on selected slow-motion replays of the point of contact, just as the ref had done. Do all the ex-players not good enough to coach now take up punditry? Having a controversial opinion online has no downsides, it appears.

Each time the authorities introduce rule change to address perceived problems in the game they manage to make things worse, or more inconsistent. Football is the world’s most popular sport due to its simplicity. Having different rules to punish offences depending where on the pitch they occur defies that simplicity. Cynical fouls and handballs are perfect examples.

Christensen was allowed to escape a yellow card for an early cynical foul on Tomas Soucek in the game last week because it was in the Hammer’s half. Leaving him free to repeat the crime on Jesse Lingard later on to take his ‘one for the team’. It is not selfless sacrifice it is cheating.

Elsewhere, Azpilicueta was deemed not to have handled the ball because he was as a defender, whereas Callum Wilson (as an attacker) was earlier penalised for a similar accidental play when scoring the first equaliser for Newcastle against Liverpool?  Cynical (or tactical) fouls like diving and acting are not part of the game and should be dealt with severely and consistently, wherever they occur.

As for the 3D line measurements coming out for VAR offside decisions, why not just simplify matters, until a complete review of the offside law is completed, by taking account of feet only and ignoring other body parts?

The one late Sunday game that did go ahead yesterday saw West Ham drop down to sixth and swapping places with Tottenham. A little more pressure added to the Hammers as they prepare for their visit to Burnley.

Injuries will play a major part in the concluding weeks of the Hammer’s excellent season. The current situation is far from clear with different reports suggesting Declan Rice, Aaron Cresswell, Arther Masuaku and Michail Antonio are either all available or all still knee deep in the treatment room. With Moyes preferring to play his cards close to chest, we have no way of knowing whether he has a full deck (or Dec) or not. Having Rice and Cresswell back at Burnley would be a huge bonus. Without having any inside knowledge I am doubtful that we will see much of Antonio and Masuaku for the rest of the season.

The captain (and by that, I mean Rice) in particular, has been sorely missed in the past two games for his drive, energy and leadership in every area of the pitch. His influence cannot be overestimated. In his absence, Mark Noble has tried hard but nowadays plays so deep it would be no surprise to see him run out with a miner’s lamp and a canary. Ironically, there are rumours that Noble is also on the injured list. Both missing would be perplexing.

Getting the Balbuena red card rescinded was something of an academic exercise in that we are unlikely to see any more of him in a West Ham shirt. The damage of that poor decision was done on the day, not by any subsequent suspension. Craig Dawson will be back tonight (from his own suspension) and is the ideal man to stand-up to the physical challenge of Chris Wood, as he did in the home fixture last January. All other changes will depend on what the injury situation finally reveals.

Burnley produced the stand-out result from last weekend when they beat Wolves 4-0, effectively making themselves safe from lingering relegation worries.  As well as Burnley played, Wolves were truly dreadful – one of the most incompetent performances I have seen for some time. The Clarets have some useful players and more importantly a tremendous team spirit. Pope is a top class keeper, Wood and McNeil are always dangerous, Vydra is starting to look a handful and the Tarkowski/ Mee partnership doesn’t give too much away in the air. Certainly no pushovers wo were never realistic relegation candidates!

Only desperate TV executives and commentators continue to hang on to the belief that the Premier League title and the relegation places are yet to be decided. Outcomes are usually obvious well before mathematical certainty confirms them to be so. Those wanting final day drama may be banking on a West Ham resurgence to ensure there is at least one issue in the balance. It will be a damp squib Sleepy Sunday if they are left cutting from match to match to check on the race for seventh.

Burnley are one of the few teams in the Premier League who rank below West Ham in terms of possession, touches and passes completed this season. With both teams averaging around 41% possession, where the ball go for the rest of the game?

It is fascinating how few touches players actually have during a game. According to the stats, West Ham players have totalled just under 17,500 touches in 33 games this season: the equivalent of 48 touches per player per game. Or around £1,000 per touch per week.

With a full complement available, this is a game that West Ham can win. Jarrod Bowen and Lingard carry enough pace, movement, and threat to compensate for the loss of Antonio, but only if the midfield foundation is solid. Without Rice the midfield platform looks shaky and Bowen gets drawn too much into defensive duties – leading the line and chasing back very soon begin to take its toll.

As ever, width on the left hand side is a problem. Ryan Fredericks and/ or Ben Johnson filling in again on their wrong foot is just not good enough in this league. Better contributions are also needed from Pablo Fornals (ineffective in the last two games) and Said Benrahma (ineffective for most of the season). It is a game that has to be won to keep the dreams alive. The TV guys may also need a West Ham win to generate season ending excitement. Otherwise, the fat lady may just as well sing her song and toddle off home for an early bath.

Claret and Blue Derby – the first of Five Cup Finals for West Ham

It’s that time of year for Cup Finals. Manchester City won their first trophy of the season beating Tottenham in the Carabao Cup Final last weekend, and the month of May will bring us the FA Cup Final and European Finals too. But for West Ham, we face Five Cup Finals of our own in our bid to achieve a top four finish for the first time in the Premier League. Of course we will not match the success of the 1985-86 season when we finished a close third in Division One (as the top flight was then), but to attain our highest ever final league position (which was 5th in 1998/99) we may need to win our remaining five games.

In 1998/99 our fifth placed finish was achieved with 57 points, but that total will certainly not be enough this time. We sit on 55 points, and in the last five games we will need to break (probably smash) our Premier League points total best (62 in the 2015/16 final season at Upton Park) to finish in the top four. Whatever the final outcome, it has been an excellent season, but how disappointed will we be if it ended with a whimper and our final position was eighth?   

It was disappointing to lose to the only goal of the game last weekend against Chelsea. But with a relatively thin squad hit by injuries it was perhaps inevitable, although it was a goal that I felt could have been avoided. With our best possible team I feel that we would have given them a lot more to think about, but the injury list has taken its toll now, and we have to hope that the scheduling of this game at Burnley, being the very last fixture in this matchweek, gives us more time for our absentees to return to fitness and be involved.

There are still eight teams involved in the quest for a top four place, and the remaining fixtures of those (excluding the two Manchester clubs who are already there [City], or close [United]) are set out below:

Leicester (62 points, Goal Difference 22, 5 games to go) – Southampton, Newcastle, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham

Chelsea (58 points, Goal Difference 20, 5 games to go) – Fulham, Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester, Villa

West Ham (55 points, Goal Difference 10, 5 games to go) – Burnley, Everton, Brighton, West Brom, Southampton

Liverpool (54 points, Goal Difference 16, 5 games to go) – Manchester United, Southampton, West Brom, Burnley, Palace

Tottenham (53 points, Goal Difference 18, 5 games to go) – Sheffield United, Leeds, Wolves, Villa, Leicester

Everton (52 points, Goal Difference 4, 5 games to go) –Villa (home), West Ham, Sheffield United, Wolves, Manchester City, Villa (away)

We are now in a position whereby we need to depend on the results of others whilst attempting to get as close as possible to maximum points in our remaining five games. Our game at Burnley will not be an easy one given our poor record at Turf Moor in recent times and the Clarets current form. Their last game, a 4-0 win at Molyneux, was not a result that many would have forecast, although Wolves have had a poor season compared to expectations at the beginning of this campaign.

Leicester have maintained their pole position to finish third with points in the bag and the best goal difference, but based on league positions, their final three fixtures are tough and will coincide with their FA Cup Final involvement. But they may have already done enough? Perhaps not quite yet but their results since losing at the London Stadium have strengthened their hold on that position.

This weekend three of our rivals for a top four place have relatively easy (on paper) fixtures. Leicester travel to Southampton, whereas Chelsea and Tottenham have home games against Fulham and Sheffield United respectively. Everton too are at home to Villa and perhaps Liverpool have the toughest game away at Old Trafford.

By the time we face Burnley on Monday evening we will know how all of our rivals have fared, and it is more than likely that we’ll need three points just to retain our current position. I wonder how many (if any) of our injured players will be fit to return? Reports suggest that some are close, but we need to wait and see.

It’s about time for a win at Burnley, and I’m predicting that we’ll keep a clean sheet and nick a goal or two to maintain our challenge. What are the chances?