West Ham eased themselves into the Europa Conference semi-finals on Thursday night with what turned out to be a comfortable victory over KAA Gent. Following yet another slow, stuttering start the Hammers picked up the tempo around the half-hour mark before running riot in the second period. The margin of victory should possibly have been even greater.
There is now the small matter of five Premier League fixtures in 15 days before the semi-final against AZ Alkmaar on May 11. With the first leg being played at the London Stadium this has the makings of a tricky tie against an unknown Dutch opponent. At first glance the relative youth of the Alkmaar team – an average age more than four years junior to the Hammers – raises anxiety levels, especially if it is the case that youthfulness equates to fast and energetic.
In an ideal world, West Ham will have been able to preserve their Premier League status before the Conference games resume. To do so will require a haul of six or seven points from the next five games. It’s a return that is above the season-to-date average – although below the last five match total of eight points.
Little further clarity was provided on the likely outcome of the relegation scramble from the games already played in the current round of matches. A win for Leicester puts them back in play while a point apiece for Southampton and Everton does more for morale than league position. Defeats for Leeds and Forest leaves both even more exposed to the dreaded drop
The run of West Ham’s five survival games kicks-off with a trip to the south coast to play Bournemouth this afternoon. It was not long ago that the Cherries were everyone’s favourite for relegation but a strong run of four victories from six has lifted them to the fringes of safety. A home win today might see them done.
Former Hammer, Gary O’Neil has knuckled down and performed a highly creditable job with his low budget squad. The Cherries are one of only two sides – the other is Forest – who have enjoyed less possession than West Ham this season. Their tendency is to get as many players behind the ball as possible – sound familiar – and rely on quick breakaways centred on the pace, movement and running of Dominic Solanke and Philip Billing.
Solanke is a strange player who never delivered on his early potential at Chelsea and Liverpool. Although he scored a hatful of goals in the Championship, his Premier League total of eight from 70 games is less than impressive for a striker – did you know he also had one England cap?. However, his tally of five this season is as good as any West Ham player, and he has also contributed plenty in assists and as target man in counter-attacks. It is Billing who tops the scoring charts for Bournemouth (with seven) – goals which are typically scored from late runs into the box. Who will be picking him up? The other Cherry who has impressed in the games I have seen is Marcus Tavernier. If he plays – he went off injured at Tottenham last week – his runs along the flanks will require close attention from the West Ham full-backs.
Life and football is full of uncertainties. But one thing we can be certain of is that David Moyes will not be springing any selection surprises when the team sheets are handed in before kick-off. From the team that started against Gent, I see the only questions as: Aaron Cresswell or Emerson Palmieri, and Nayef Aguerd or Angelo Ogbonna.
That will mean starting berths again for two players – Tomas Soucek and Said Benrahma – who have looked well out of sorts for varying parts of the campaign. Moyes obsession with Soucek is legendary and hinges on the manager’s fixation with the aerial presence the Czech offers in defensive areas. If Soucek was still weighing in with goals at the other end it might be worth the trade-off. But he’s not and without goals his poor proficiency with the ball at his feet stands out even more. At this level a player shouldn’t he heading the ball because he doesn’t trust his own ability to bring it under control.
Benrhama has been consistently frustrating for much of his Hammer’s career and into this season. Granted he is joint top in Goals Scored and Goals + Assists but those stats do include four penalty kicks. His decision making is still haphazard, and, for me, he lacks the speed and strength to hack it at the top level. In the average game Benny looks incapable of pressing a grape, so it was something of a surprise last week when he outmuscled Ben White before crossing for what should have been West Ham’s winner against Arsenal.
It is baffling why Maxwell Cornet has yet to be given more minutes since his recovery from injury. Surely, he needs them to get match fit and his pace would be a welcome added dimension to attacks. Yet he has been mainly limited to five-minute cameos as a late Michail Antonio replacement since returning to the match day squad.
A West Ham win would be a second double of the season for the Hammers. It would also be a first ever double over the Cherries and the first win in Bournemouth since a Dimitri Payet inspired 3-1 victory in January 2016. A Hammer’s comeback inspired by one of Payet’s memorable free-kicks. How we could do with that now!
The game promises to be an intriguing clash of two sides inclined to play with a similar style – defend deep and counter-attack. It will be a very different challenge for West Ham than games against attack minded opponents like Arsenal and Gent. Despite some great goals scored recently – the Declan Rice and Antonio strikes on Thursday were top drawer – more penalty box chances need to be created from open play if the Goals For column is to be improved. The approach to the game must be adventurous enough for the Hammers to put pressure on the shaky home defence, with Jarrod Bowen and Lucas Paqueta the most likely to make it happen. But disciplined enough not to get caught out by Bournemouth counter attacks. A tight affair is forecast but one that must feature strongly on the winnable list. COYI!