West Ham Versus Manchester City And The Case For A Champions League Play Off Place

As the Hammers make a tilt at finally beating City and overtaking United, why is there no play-off for the final Champions League spot?

One thing that is missing from the top level of English football is the Play-Off. If Play-Offs are considered a vital element for maintaining interest and excitement during promotion races from the lower leagues, why are they not also used for the allocation of the final Champions League place?

How much more exciting it would be if Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, West Ham and Wolves still had hopes of snatching a qualifying place going into the final games. What rip-roaring memories could be had from a two-leg semi-final win over Arsenal and then beating Spurs in a final at Wembley. The spectacle would instantly become the biggest single game of the season. A climactic season finale. FA Cup? Chicken feed! Championship Play-Off? Loose Change!

Conspiracists might suggest the Big Six would veto any such such move, but it really doesn’t disadvantage them any more than the current system – even provides a ‘get out of jail card’ in the event of a poor start or managerial change. And the Big Six aren’t equals in any case. Right now, it’s made up of Manchester City and Liverpool plus the four stooges. Maybe tinkering with qualification is not permitted by that anal suits at UEFA Headquarters. Forbidden in the rule book small print alongside clauses on minimum circumference of the half-time oranges and regulation referee hairstyles.

Premier League Champions-in-waiting, Manchester City visit the London Stadium on Sunday for the Hammers final home fixture of the season. In theory it is an opportunity to plant a spoke in the visitor’s wheels, but recent results have all but confirmed a second successive title, and the fourth in five years, for the Citizens. The ten goals scored against Newcastle and Wolves have effectively left them in an unassailable position, barring a miracle or two.

While a West Ham win would cause a temporary setback to City’s title hopes it would have significant implications for their own European ambitions, plus those of the visitor’s Manchester neighbours. The Hammers would leapfrog Manchester United by virtue of superior goal difference and nabbing the Europa League spot would then require West Ham to at least match the Red Devils result on the final day of the season. If only there hadn’t been a late missed spot kick and a last minute winner in those two games against the Reds.

History tells us that beating Manchester City is easier said than done, however. The Hammers last won a home league game against them in October 2014 (2-1: Amalfitano, Sakho). There was another 2-1 win, in September 2015, this time at the City of Manchester Stadium (Moses, Sakho), but since then it has been a run of two draws and ten defeats at an aggregate score of 32 to 8.

The injury news has been largely positive during the week with Craig Dawson and Michail Antonio both reported to have recovered from knocks that saw them leave the field at Carrow Road last weekend. Said Benrahma, however, remains doubtful following his assault by the Norwich pitch.

The visitors are experiencing their own injury crisis in defence and are now down to their last £50 m centre back in Nathan Ake. Injuries to Stones, Dias, Laporte, Fernandinho and Walker requiring Guardiola to shuffle his resources. A shame that Aaron Cresswell will not have the opportunity to see Fernandinho execute the true art of the professional foul, and how to get away with it.

A weakened City rearguard should give hope to West Ham, allowing them to end the season with the record of scoring in every home league game still intact. It will then come down to a simple matter of outscoring their gifted opponents, restricting the likes of De Bruyne, Silva, Mahrez, Foden, Jesus and Sterling to speculative long shots.  Watching Manchester City is rarely riveting but they do have a knack of ultimately wearing teams down, running their legs off. Their intensity on the pitch as relentless as their sportswashing off of it!

As ever, the Hammers limited resources makes little room for speculation over team selection. Who plays at right back is about as heated as any discussion might get! Cresswell will be a worry for me. I’m guessing David Moyes will play him, but he will be hopelessly exposed by pace down the right, and prone to losing Mahrez at the far post.

The game will be a last at home for Mark Noble who is hanging up his boots at the end of the season. Nobes has been a reliable, honest, and committed performer for all of his eighteen years at the club. He never puts in less than 100% effort and has been a great example to those around him, even during the last few seasons where he has been largely a squad player. I hope the club can find a new role for him, preferably not sweeping the London Stadium dressing rooms until retirement: “Watcha Dave, I’ve been using the same broom for 20 years now. It’s just had 17 new heads and 14 new handles”

The last home game of the season generally enjoys a celebratory party atmosphere. In that spirit, West Ham to win 4-3 with a Mark Noble winner in the 6th minute of added time. COYI!

For Better Or For Wurst: West Ham Prepare To Batter Frankfurters

Your task should you wish to accept it, is to win by two clear goals. It’s a tough assignment but no mission impossible as the Hammers head to Frankfurt

All the West Ham eggs are now firmly in a single basket labelled Europa League semi-final second leg. Nine months of competition season distilled into ninety minutes (plus) in which the Hammers must turn the tables and emerge victorious if they are to keep dreams of glory and silverware alive.

Defeat in the first leg was disappointing. As much for the deflation and failure to live up to events of 46 years ago as the outcome of the match itself. But all was not lost and the tie remains alive. It is not ideal to start the game a goal behind, but it makes winning a difficult task, not a monumental one.  A draw at the London Stadium would still have required victory tonight, the only difference being how the two teams react to the circumstances they find themselves in. Will Eintracht, no longer the underdogs, risk sitting back on their lead – do they stick or do they twist? The challenge for West Ham is clear – play with intensity, avoid conceding sloppy goals and find the guile to get behind and beyond the host’s defence?

Both managers fielded weakened sides in league matches at the weekend. Eintracht dropping into the bottom half of the Bundesliga following defeat to third placed Leverkusen, West Ham losing out in their London Derby against Arsenal to effectively end outstanding hopes of consecutive top six finishes. I doubt form will count for much tonight, though. It’s a one-off game that will test character and resilience as much as it will ability.

If there was a takeaway from the first leg it was that Eintracht performed technically and tactically better than West Ham. The Hammers either lacked quality in the final third (a recurring theme) or their threat was snuffed out by superior German tactics. The match statistics, however, painted an interesting picture that provides at least a straw of encouragement for the return. West Ham had more shots, a greater share of possession, won more corners, had a better pass success rate, made more successful dribbles, and won more aerial duels than their opponents. And of course, struck the woodwork three times. But the only stat that wins matches are goals scored. To win we must outscore the opposition. Certainly not impossible.

It should be a fully fit squad for David Moyes to select from with the exception of extended absentee, Angelo Ogbonna. The only uncertainties are probably Ben Johnson or Vladimir Coufal at right back, and which two of Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals or Said Benrahma feature alongside Jarrod Bowen in the attacking midfield positions. I’m fairly confident that Lanzini will start which then boils selection down to a preference for Fornals energetic defensive cover or a hoped-for moment of magic from Benrahma. The introduction of Benrahma certainly livened things up in the first leg but his starts are routinely characterised by bright starts fizzling out once the tricks and flicks fail to come off. But we need invention tonight, so my predicted starting eleven would be: Areola, Johnson, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Lanzini, Benrahma, Antonio.

Eintracht Frankfurt welcome back two players (Ndicka and Jakic) suspended from the first leg but may stick with side that steered them to victory in London.

The game might prove to be a fascinating tactical battle. Both teams preferring to play on the break but neither having demonstrated the soundest defensive conviction in recent matches. To succeed West Ham must be clinical on the break and make better use of the set pieces that come their way. At the back, the greatest worry is the weakness and lack of pace down our left-hand side. It is going to be tense from start to finish.

It is the second leg of European encounters that usually deliver the most memorable games. Forget group matches, this is where the excitement is, unless the first leg has made it a foregone conclusion. We were already treated to thrills and superb performances in previous rounds against Sevilla and Lyon. And with all to play for tonight, we must believe the team can deliver once again.  Big performances will be needed from the likes of Zouma, Dawson, Rice, Bowen and Antonio

Personally, I am mentally prepared for extra-time and even the spectre of penalties tonight, although hopefully it won’t come to a shoot-out lottery. With only limited resources available from the bench, and a manager reluctant to use them in any case, a victory in normal time would be nice. In a kind of reverse symmetry to 1976, a 3-1 away win would be absolutely wunderbar. COYI!  

It’s A Game Of Four Halves: But Is Today Gunner Prove A Distraction For West Ham?

Another pesky London derby gets in the way of Europa League business with the visit of Arsenal to the London Stadium. How will David Moyes balance his priorities?

In the end West Ham – Eintracht Frankfurt: The Sequel didn’t live up to the high standard set by the original. If Occam had a philosophical razor for football matches it might suggest the higher expectations are raised, the deeper the depression when they are not satisfied – at least, as far as West Ham are concerned. But it now opens up an even greater and more memorable achievement if the one-goal deficit can be overturned in the away leg next Thursday.

After all, the situation at what is effectively half-time in the tie, is exactly the same as it was 46 years ago. If Jarrod Bowen’s spectacular effort had levelled the score in the dying minutes, we would still need to win in Frankfurt to go through to the final. And even if the Hammers were taking a slender lead to Germany, there would still be the fears and anxieties of sitting back too much to hold on to the lead. Sure, it will be an uphill battle, but all is not lost. They are not unbeatable and neither of the previous rounds followed the same pattern in both legs.

There was widespread agreement that Thursday’s performance fell well short of what was needed. Only a few players came close to their usual standard. Stage fright, perhaps with the weight of expectation or occasion holding them back? Most definitely a lack of quality in the final third but isn’t that something we hear most weeks? What I didn’t see, though, was a lack of effort, as some suggested in comments I read online.

Conceding such an early goal certainly set the tone on proceedings. The defence were all over the place for that one, collectively dragged across to the right hand side and leaving a huge space in behind on the left. Despite the equaliser, West Ham were unable to build on it and impose themselves on the match. That was the disappointment and control of the midfield areas will need to improve in the return.

No doubt, the second coming of the Moyesiah has seen a MASSIVE improvement in the Hammer’s fortunes.  But we have to accept it is an improvement built around getting the absolute best out of a small and committed group of players. It would be great to have a Plan B when the going gets tough, but we simply don’t have the players to do that. We are very good at making the most of our strengths – breakaways or set pieces – but limited beyond that.

Time has yet to tell whether the improvement we have seen on the pitch can develop into genuine progress throughout the club. By which, I mean a platform that can be sustained beyond the current group of players. To achieve that requires better facilities, a productive academy and forward-looking player recruitment. The summer transfer window may provide pointers to whether an appetite exists to both upgrade and deepen the strength of the squad.  

With a fully fit squad, one of the greatest limitations is creativity in attacking midfield. Someone to pull the strings and offer a different dimension in unpicking tight defences. None of the options – Pablo Fornals, Said Benrahma, or Manuel Lanzini – fit the bill. If Nikola Vlasic was meant to be the answer, we asked the wrong question.

The most sparkling period of football during the last memorable two years was when Jesse Lingard was doing just that last winter – although I no longer see him as the long term solution. Someone like Martin Odegaard from today’s visitors has the ideal attributes. He is the one individual who has provided the spark for Arsenal’s assault on the top four – as well as sparking their revival from three goals down in today’s corresponding fixture last year.

The Gunners are now firm favourites for the final top four place. It would be fantastic to put a spoke in their bid but maybe a Pyrrhic victory if it opened the door to Tottenham. Much will depend on the north London derby to be played on May 12.

The Hammers Premier League aspirations remain complicated. The Europa League is clearly the bigger prize but putting all the eggs in that basket would be costly if qualification from domestic league position is sacrificed as a result. Fortunately, Wolves have been eager to help out on that score. Yet, the possibility of finishing above Manchester United in sixth remains in our own hands, at least in theory.

The question then, is how will David Moyes set his priorities for today and Thursday? The team selection against Chelsea almost did enough to preserve the point it had started with, but Craig Dawson’s dismissal was a blow, both then and now. Will Kurt Zouma be fit enough to start or is that a risk too far for Thursday? Do Michail Antonio or Tomas Soucek need a rest? I suspect it will be a similar approach to the Chelsea game with a back three of Zouma, Ben Johnson and Aaron Cresswell, and further outings for Mark Noble and Andriy Yarmolenko.

Arsenal have some exciting young talent to call upon and their pace down the flanks has to be a concern for Moyes. They don’t have the deepest of squads and will miss the injured Tierney and Partey, while Xhaka is always one challenge away from a red card. They were quite fortunate to beat Manchester United last week and owed much of their victory to Fernandes stupidity with his spot kick.

It is difficult to like the Gunners under the management of Lego-haired supremo Mikel Arteta (or is it Duplo hair?) They are too taken with the dark arts of whinging, diving, and simulation to be admired. The tolerance of referees to cheating and simulation continues to cast a dark shadow on the game. The professional dive and the professional head injury are just as distasteful as the professional foul invented by Willie Young

As the game is another that is difficult to call, I dug out my Ouija board to get this week’s prediction. According to the spirit world, it’s West Ham to win 3-1 with goals from Vlasic, Yarmolenko and Masuaku. COYI!

A Bridge Too Far? Can West Ham Put European Excitement To One Side As They Travel Across Town To Chelsea?

With important Premier League points still to play for, the Hammers must rise above European distraction and injury misfortune in the east-meets-west London derby

When Friedrich Nietzsche coined the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, he obviously hadn’t contemplated playing three crucial season defining fixtures in the course of eight days with only one fit central defender. Proof that German philosophers are no better at football punditry than Jamie Redknapp, Garth Crooks, or Michael Owen.

While I’m still clutching at the flimsiest of straws that Kurt Zouma might be back and available for Thursday night, the injury situation leaves a massive hole to fill for today’s encounter at Stamford Bridge. It now seems the Hammers final league position will be somewhere between 6th and 8th – dependent on whether they can scramble ahead of an increasingly shambolic and disinterested Manchester United and/ or holding off the challenge of Wolverhampton Wanderers. The understandable distraction of the Europa League and the extent of the injury situation will have a huge bearing on where that ends and how history ultimately represents the 2021/ 22 season.

To achieve a repeat of last year’s points tally would require four wins and a draw from the remaining five fixtures. A tall order with games against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City to come in the season’s finale. Reaching 60 points may now be a more realistic target. The Hammer’s league campaign has been steady rather than breath-taking. With a European campaign to contend with, having become a known quantity and little transfer activity that is maybe no surprise. Points won have been the result of a much-quoted resilience rather than due to footballing magnificence. The season’s most exuberant and barnstorming performances have been saved for Europe – second leg ties against Sevilla and Lyon. The possible exceptions are the two home victories over Liverpool and today’s opponents, Chelsea.

As the league campaign nears its conclusion it is clear that Manchester City and Liverpool are ahead of the field by some distance. Chelsea will most probably hold on for third, despite their recent poor run, after which it is the unpleasant prospect of a team from north London taking the final Champions League position.

If West Ham were to triumph in the Europa League, there would be a fascinating scenario of three London clubs participating in the Champions League group stages. Yet if the Hammers should manage to qualify, they would end up earning less money than their more illustrious neighbours given that a significant proportion of broadcasting revenue is distributed according to ten-year UEFA coefficients. A consequence of the Super League by stealth project.

When a slice of Masuaku magic defeated Chelsea in December 2021, it prevented the Blues from leaping to the top of the Premier League table. They had been early season favourites before gradually and steadily falling well off the pace. In truth, they have an excellent, well-organised coach but with good rather than great players. I don’t see too many Chelsea players who would be coveted by the top two. Without doubt they have stronger squad depth than West Ham.

Any suggestions as to how David Moyes juggles with the defence today is complete guesswork. A variety of options have been discussed online, some more appealing than others but none that stand out as ideal. Personally I would always prefer the least disruptive change, which in this case would mean either promoting a central defender from the Under 23s or shifting Ben Johnson to the centre. Moyes came out as reluctant to drop an inexperienced Under 23 into such a high profile game, which maybe highlights the folly of rarely giving young players a taste of action from the bench.

Moving Declan Rice back and/ or playing three at the back are other possibilities. The Chelsea threat is one of speed and movement rather than aerial, a consideration that Moyes may have in mind. The difficulty for me is with Rice so pivotal to both defensive and attacking midfield operations, we would struggle to string anything together in his absence. It merely weakens two positions.

In even the toughest of games I can usually muster some degree of optimism that there is a chance of a point or three being stolen. It is proving difficult to find that hope today. The prior record ahead of midweek Europa League games, the distraction of semi-final glory, the injuries, and Chelsea’s desire to bounce back from successive defeats all accumulate into a major serving of bad feeling. But then I remember the David Martin game from 2019. I wonder if he’s any good at centre-half? COYI!  

West Ham Set To Rise Again At Easter: Burnley Left Hot And Cross

Another chance for West Ham’s Europa League heroes to make a statement of intent and end the weekend 5th in the Premier League standings

Oh what a night, hypnotising, mesmerising me. It was everything I dreamed it’d be. As I remember, what a night!

The Europa League campaign has now served up two of the most memorable West Ham performances in living memory. And all within the space of four weeks. Victories against Sevilla and now Lyon are victories that will be talked about for years to come.

There can’t have been too many supporters who didn’t fear the worst after last Sunday’s defeat at Brentford. Not just that we lost but the manner of the defeat. It was the look of a jaded team. One where the spring had left the step and fatigue had taken over. The Hammers looked to have a mountain to climb as they headed to the foothills of the Massif Central.

The style and panache that was demonstrated in Lyon was as fabulous as it was unexpected. True there had been a shaky start, but once into their stride West Ham were imperious. It feels impolite to single out individual players from a team of heroes but Craig Dawson, Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio were each at the top of their games. Honourable mention also for Issa Diop and Ben Johnson who might have been exposed but in the hour (and a half) of need were more than up for the challenge.

Compared and contrasted to the Brentford performance, the difference was not of tiredness but of mindset. Will this be the story for the remainder of the season. The glamour, excitement and anticipation of Europa League glory forcing mundane Premier League matches to the back of the mind. Results yesterday have, for the second week running, left the door to the top six finish teasingly ajar. Can the opportunity be gratefully seized this time around, allowing the Hammers to spend the rest of Easter in 5th place?

To quote a well-worn cliché David Moyes must take each game as it comes. The record following midweek European games has not that impressive to date, his team having won only three and lost five of nine matches. Although two of those wins were against Tottenham and Liverpool.

In an ideal world today is the perfect time for the fresh legs of fringe players to give key individuals a well-earned breather. But I don’t see that happening this weekend. What happens in the Chelsea and Arsenal games that sandwich the Europa League semi-final ties will cause more of a selection dilemma.

There will be changes today but the starting eleven will closely resemble that which triumphed in Lyon. Lukasz Fabianski and Aaron Cresswell will likely return, and there may be a toss up between Vladimir Coufal and Ben Johnson at right back. Possibly Said Benrahma or Nikola Vlasic could receive the call in place of Manuel Lanzini, but that would be an outside bet. Predicted team: Fabianski, Johnson, Dawson, Diop, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Lanzini, Fornals, Antonio.

The pre-match debate has been dominated by the surprising news that Sean Dyche has been sacked as Burnley manager. In a move reminiscent of turkeys voting for Christmas, the Claret’s board have virtually guaranteed relegation for the club. Fat Frank couldn’t have believed his luck when the story broke. The timing is quite bizarre, unless there have been behind the scenes shenanigans that we are not aware of. I’ve never been a huge fan of Burnley’s agricultural style under the gravelly voiced one, but you have to admire the pragmatism that has kept Burnley in the topflight since 2016 on a shoestring budget.

With most of the backroom staff also getting their marching orders, temporary team management duties have fallen to Under-23s boss, Michael Jackson. So today, could be a Thriller, or else it could be Bad!

It is difficult to imagine that Burnley won’t be in a state of disarray for the game. It is a perfect time for the Hammers to hit them when they’re down – which they will be come the end of the season. A healthy 3-0 win and a chance to give a few youngsters a run from the bench. COYI!

A Nods As Good As A Wink: Aerial Power The Key For West Ham In The Lyon’s Den

West Ham’s dream of Europa League progress takes centre stage as they head for sudden death success against the Lyon winkers

Preparation for today’s Europa League Quarter Final second leg could hardly have gone any worse. Playing a full-strength side at Brentford on Sunday might have made sense at the time – in the hope of capitalising on slip-ups by Manchester United and Arsenal – but in retrospect giving key players the opportunity to rest would have been the sensible option. The Hammers wouldn’t have taken anything less from the game, and might have found themselves in a far better position to face Lyon.

The performance at Brentford was one of the poorest from a West Ham side for quite some time. We will discover later whether this was down to fatigue or was the result of player’s minds seduced by today’s showdown. There are fine margins at this level and concentration only has to slip a little to be exposed by an opponent as determined as Brentford.

The European adventure has provided a welcome added dimension to the season. Having had a taste, I’m sure most fans are eager for more next season. Qualification for the Europa League or Conference is still a possibility from league position but winning this competition would hit the jackpot of Champions League qualification. Easy to see why today’s game could serve as a distraction.

I was reasonably happy when West Ham were drawn against Lyon. After all, having just knocked out serial winners, Sevilla, what problems could a mid-ranking Ligue 1 side possibly pose? I did worry, though, whether the Hammers had peaked too soon in that Sevilla second leg. It felt like we were already in the final.

This tie sits finely poised after a referee assisted first leg stalemate at the London Stadium. Playing for half a game with ten men is never easy, so huge credit for a gutsy draw. But the implications of the farcical red card do not stop there. We must now play another whole game without the services of Aaron Cresswell. It’s not that Cresswell is a fantastic or irreplaceable player, it’s that he’s the only left back we have! A ludicrous state of affairs to find yourself in.

The other spanner in the works was the news that Kurt Zouma will miss the match, and potentially the rest of the season, with a twisted ankle. Wouldn’t Billy Bonds or Stuart Pearce just have had a squirt of Ralgex and carried on playing? Zouma is a commanding presence in the air but often looks awkward (almost clumsy) going in for tackles. I wonder whether he picks up more than his fair share of injuries because of that. No doubt he is one of our top players and his absence will be sorely missed.

I don’t see David Moyes making any radical changes to shape to compensate for the absences. It will be Issa Diop replacing Zouma in a straight swap, with Ben Johnson in as the least worst replacement for Cresswell. I consider Johnson to be the most accomplished of our full backs defensively but switching sides and playing on your weaker foot is not as easy as many suggest, particularly at the highest level. How well he adapts to the threat down the right may well be one of the pivotal battles of the night.  There has also been speculation about Declan Rice dropping into a back three, but that would be crazy unless the plan is to play under siege for ninety minutes. In any case, the squad does not have the wing backs to deliver the attacking width required from the role.

Could there be change in the forward midfield positions? Manuel Lanzini looked seriously out-of-sorts on Sunday and maybe Pablo Fornals replaces him in the centre, with Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma out wide. Or could there be a surprise return for Mark Noble to stiffen the midfield alongside Rice and Tomas Soucek? Maybe that is a second half change!

My predicted line-up is: Areola, Coufal, Dawson, Diop, Johnson, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Fornals, Benrahma, Antonio   

As with the first game I expect assorted dark arts and skulduggery from Lyon. The type of tactics that commentators euphemistically refer to as ‘using their experience, rather than calling it what it is, cheating. We must hope the Swiss referee is more attuned to such underhand behaviour and does not believe his role is to be part of the entertainment.

Lyon are reported to have picked up a number of injuries since the first leg, notably goalkeeper, Lopes and midfield creator, Paqueta. Goal threats remain from the winking Dembele, Toko Ekambi and Tete requiring new heights of excellence from the Dawson-Diop axis – a pairing that has failed to impress in the past.

Tonight’s winner will be set up for a cracker of a semi-final against either Barcelona or Eintracht Frankfurt. Although underdogs, West Ham can win this. On more than one occasion, the team have demonstrated the character, fight and determination needed to achieve it. It starts all-square with no requirement to win by more than one goal, as in the second leg with Sevilla. As someone famous once said, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

We cannot change the players Moyes has available for selection. All we can do is accept whoever is picked, get fully behind the team, and spur them on to victory. I’m banking on the pace of power of Michail Antonio rattling the Lyon defence and our set pieces causing nightmares for the stand-in Lyon keeper. Dawson to nod in the winner! We still believe. COYI!

Hammers Have An Old Score To Settle With The Bees: Moyes Will Be Buzzing

Yesterday’s results leave the door open for West Ham to snatch successive top six finishes. Can they take advantage with a revenge win over recently rallying Brentford?

Cast your mind back two years to the same stage of the 2019/20 season, and you will remember that West Ham were languishing in 17th place in the Premier League. They had accumulated a meagre twenty-seven points from the thirty-one games played. With three of their relegation rivals each having a game in hand, the future looked bleak at the London Stadium.

It has been a phenomenal turnaround that the Hammers now find themselves in touching distance of a second consecutive top six finish and a Europa League semi-final. Even if those ambitions are eventually thwarted, it is a scenario that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of the most claret-and-blue spectacled optimist back in June 2020.

Huge praise must go the manager, coaches, and a fantastic group of players for this improvement, built around hard work, commitment, and organisation. It’s a great time to be a Hammer. But as supporters we are never fully satisfied. Our minds are always filled with the ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens’. While marvelling at the team’s stellar improvement, I am yet to be convinced that behind the scenes changes have made the progress required to create a legacy beyond the tenure of the manager and the current crop of players. The key to this is a planned and sensible recruitment strategy and a far more productive academy. The jury is still out on both of those – although I won’t let it spoil the enjoyment of the moment.

Harping on about the lack of transfer activity ends up sounding like a broken record. But the implications don’t go away. We are essentially the same side as last season plus Kurt Zouma. Games have been played without a recognised striker and now we must negotiate a Europa League quarter final without a recognised left-back. It’s just so very seat of the pants.

It is apparent this season that fourth spot is up for grabs for anyone able to demonstrate the correct level of consistency. Tottenham made a couple of astute signings in January and are now firmly in the driving seat. West Ham did nothing and have ended as plucky losers as far as that particular prize is concerned. While finishing fifth or sixth would be no mean feat, I can’t help feel it could have been better.

The other regret from the season are the needless points that have been dropped in sloppy circumstances. Losing twice to Manchester United when they both should have ended in draws, for example. And the below par performances that resulted in home defeats to bottom half sides – Southampton, Leeds, and today’s opponents, Brentford.  

The home fixture against Brentford in October was especially frustrating. There’s no doubt the visitor’s deserved their first half lead as a bright and intense opening caught the Hammer’s cold. Having taken the lead, though, the visitors fell back on the dark arts of time wasting and going to ground at every opportunity. Arguably a pragmatic approach for a side on a limited budget newly promoted to the Premier League. Once West Ham had equalised it felt there would be only one winner in the match, but there was to be a sting in the tail. A pointless free kick conceded in the depths of added time, uncharacteristic lapses in marking, a poor parry by Fabianski, and the ball was lashed home for a Brentford win. The Bees leapfrogging the Hammers in the process to move up to eighth.

Brentford have successfully kept their heads just above relegation trouble since then and can now look forward to a second season at the top level. A recent improved run of form was capped with a thrilling and emphatic 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge last weekend. They will prove uncompromising opponents once again today.

If West Ham are to match last season’s points haul, they will require fourteen points from the final seven games. Four wins, two draws and a defeat would achieve that. Looking at the fixture list, today must feature near the top of the winnable games. As Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are still to come, we cannot risk our one defeat at the Brentford Community Stadium.

With the second leg Europa League tie against Lyon coming up on Thursday, some have suggested there might be a spot of squad rotation today. I don’t see Moyes going for that myself and, in any case, he doesn’t have too many options anyway. Perhaps there will be recalls for Vladimir Coufal at right back and Manuel Lanzini in midfield. Lanzini is a player who can be hit or miss, but when he is deployed deeper it does allow Tomas Soucek more opportunity to get forward. It also takes some of the pressure off Declan Rice as the default instigator of almost every West Ham attack.

The defence must stay on high alert to counter the movement and physicality of Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo. Thankfully, Craig Dawson and Zouma have established a strong and solid partnership that has exceeded all expectations and should be equal to the task. Toney hasn’t quite lived up to his goalscoring reputation, and although he is the host’s leading scorer, five of his eight have been from the spot. I am delighted to see Christian Eriksen back playing football again. I wish him the best, even in defeat.

I expect it will be a tough, physical game. The hosts will start with intensity and on the front foot. Moyes will need to prepare his men for the initial onslaught – no slow start can be tolerated this afternoon. It will be an intriguing encounter which I predict West Ham will sneak 1-0. COYI!

Can The Hammers Make Sure The Lyon Sleeps Tonight (a-west-ham-a-way!)

Bonjour mes petits messieurs de Lyonnais, savez-vous que le West Ham est énorme partout où nous allons?

So here we are, the first European quarter final action for West Ham since the heady days of March 1981. A time when one of my all-time favourite Hammers sides had been romping away with the second division with a League Cup final appointment with Liverpool to look forward, sandwiched between two ECWC games against Dinamo Tblisi.

In a TV commentary on Sunday’s victory over Everton (Jim Proudfoot, I think) it was said that the home leg against Tblisi was played behind closed doors. That was wrong. There were almost 35,000 of us packed into the Boleyn that night to witness one of the finest displays of mesmerising counter attacking football ever produced. Unfortunately, it came from the opposition whose masterclass of tricks, feints, and clever passing bamboozled a shell-shocked West Ham by four goals to one. If there can be such a thing as a favourite defeat, this was it. Just as long as there is no repeat this evening.

Today’s Ligue 1 opposition, Olympique Lyonnais, are a much better-known quantity than Tblisi were back in 1981. Highlights programmes, Youtube reels and the regular movement of players around the European leagues have made sure of that. Lyon are seasoned European campaigners, having featured in either the Champions League or Europa League in nine of the last ten seasons. They have competed in the Champions League group stage four times and even went as far as the semi-finals in 2019/20, having beaten Manchester City in the previous round.

Under new manager, Peter Bosz, this has been a less inspiring season. In Ligue 1 they sit in mid-table obscurity year (they are ninth) making the Europa League their only realistic route to Europe for the 2022/23 campaign.

Despite their travails in the league, Lyon have had an impressive Europa League so far. They won Group A at a canter, undefeated in six games against Rangers, Sparta Prague and Brondby. A commendable Round of 16 victory over runaway Portuguese league leaders, Porto, then set up the quarter final tie with the Hammers.

Familiar names in the Lyon side include Moussa Dembele, who had once looked an excellent prospect at Fulham, and Tottenham reject, Tanguy Ndombele. Others to watch out for are Brazilian playmaker, Pasqueta and the Cameroon striker, Ekambi. They have also been allowed by UEFA to add another Brazilian, Tete (on-loan from Shakhtar Donetsk), to their squad as part of the special transfer window arrangement for Ukraine and Russia based players.

Once again, there are few areas of debate when it comes to predicting the West Ham starting eleven. Manuel Lanzini will miss the game through suspension and Ben Johnson is doubtful with hamstring problems. Hopefully, Vladimir Coufal will return at right back, although for reasons best known to him, David Moyes rates Ryan Fredericks more highly than most supporters do. Otherwise, the only other change to the side that started in the competent win over Everton will be Alphone Areola replacing Lukasz Fabianski between the sticks: Areola, Coufal, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Fornals, Benrahma, Antonio.

Playing the first leg at home never has quite the same sense of jeopardy or urgency about it – there is always a second chance. The London Stadium crowd put in a cracking performance as twelfth man against Sevilla and a repeat of that would surely intimidate the visitors.

The Lyon coach has a reputation for preparing teams that press hard and play attacking football, sometimes recklessly. If the press can be beaten, then it would play nicely to West Ham’s counter-attacking strengths. The Hammers also have a distinct height advantage over Lyon, so set-pieces may also be a deciding factor. While, Lyon have not been prolific in front of goal they do possess several players with impressive goalscoring records. The determination and concentration of Craig Dawson and Kurt Zouma will be significant at both ends.  

A slight worry for West Ham is Declan Rice’s yellow card situation. If I understand the UEFA rules correctly, a card today will result in suspension for the second leg although the slate will be wiped clean before the semi-finals.

It would be great if the tie could effectively be put to bed in the first leg with an emphatic victory. But big wins are a rarity for a team that prefers to protect what they have rather than pressing home the advantage. I can see Lyon finding it difficult to handle Michail Antonio and that will give us the edge required for victory. But only by a margin that will have us sweating again this time next week. COYI!   

Hammers Revival Threatens Toffees Survival

With injuries easing can David Moyes get West Ham geared up for one last push in memorable season?

Football returns from the enforced hibernation of yet another international break to focus once again on the important business of club competition. I am increasingly ambivalent when it come to international football. Delighted whenever a Hammer gets called up by his country and always pleased to see England do well, but I’d rather it didn’t disrupt the rhythm of domestic leagues as much as it now does.

While we were away the draw for the tainted Qatar World Cup took place. Gareth must have been wearing his lucky waistcoat as England were landed the easiest of draws. He needs shooting if his team don’t make it through to the last eight at least.

The World Cup Finals will, of course, cause major and unprecedented disruption to the 2022/23 season. Once the European Nations League and Euro 2024 matches are shoehorned in, the schedule will be energy sapping for the players and frustrating for the fans. The international programme will look something like this:

European Nations League Qualifiers: June & September 2022
World Cup: November/ December 2022
Euro 2024 Qualifiers: March 2023
European Nations League Finals: June 2023
Euro 2024 Qualifiers: June, September, October & November 2023

Are we reaching a point where there is just too much football?

Back on the domestic front, West Ham play eight more league games between today and May 22. There will also be a minimum of two and a maximum of five Europa League fixtures to fit in. In a perfect world the final match of the season will be in Seville on May 26. It could be an exciting couple of months or fizzle out to nothing.

The first game of the run-in sees chaotic crisis club Everton visit the London Stadium. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, then whoever has been making the recruitment decisions at Everton must be stark raving bonkers. They are the Keystone Cops of the Premier League.

The current Toffee’s manager is, of course, top three West Ham pantomime villain, Frank Lampard Jr. He is the seventh manager at Goodison since David Moyes left in 2013. Apart from Martinez, none have lasted more than two seasons despite eye-watering amounts spent in the transfer market. In some ways, what has happened at Goodison is an exaggerated version of what was going on at West Ham until recently. Hubris, pretension, and vanity overruling intelligence and shrewdness when it came to recruitment. The chutzpah of the big-name shirt-holding photo opportunity being preferred to the hard work and diligence of team building and player development. Hopes and prayers that we don’t fall back into that mode.

For all the bad feeling around Lampard, he seems an intelligent chap and one who always looked cut out for management. A mistake that he abandoned a worthwhile apprenticeship at Derby for a taste of the big-time well before he was ready for it. He seems an odd choice to parachute in for a relegation battle, but perhaps he will be lucky that the three teams below him just don’t have enough quality to drag him down. Survival by default.

The Hammers appear to have come through the international break without any additional injury concerns, although it was disappointing that Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek were both required to play a full ninety minutes in meaningless friendlies in midweek. Manuel Lanzini is apparently fine after being involved in a car accident and while Jarrod Bowen and Vladimir Coufal are now back in training, I would be surprised if either of them featured today, except from the bench.  

Despite defeat at Tottenham there have been signs in recent performances that West Ham have recaptured some of their early season swagger. A shame that the doldrums of December and February had scuppered a realistic tilt at the top four.

The subtle tweak to formation that was seen against Aston Villa and Sevilla, with Manuel Lanzini playing deeper, has allowed Soucek to get forward more, without unduly restraining Rice’s freer role. It is closer to a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1. It makes better use of the talent available and I imagine that is how we will line-up today. Unfortunate that Lanzini will miss the Lyon game through suspension.

What was clear from defeat at Tottenham is that West Ham do not have the personnel to play any system that requires wing-backs. Aaron Cresswell, Ben Johnson and Coufal are all admirable defenders but fall short when it comes to the attacking requirements of that role. Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku are not up to standard either in defence or attack.

I can’t see much room for debate over the front three where Michail Antonio will be joined by Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. There has been speculation about Nikola Vlasic starting but other than he once played for Everton there seems no rationale to support this. For all his poor decision making, Benrahma is most probable source of the unexpected.

There is little to suggest that today’s game will be a thriller. Everton are desperate for points and will not want to give any of them up easily. They will defend deep and hope to hit West Ham on the break. Richarlison will be diving to ground and rolling around in simulated agony at every possible opportunity, with or without tactical head injury. The Hammers will need patience and should try to keep the ball moving across the pitch to create space for runners. The tendency to get bogged down in intricate congested triangles might work on the training ground but it is ineffective on the pitch. Breaking down stubborn opposition is not our strongest suit but we showed that we can do it against Sevilla. There is always the set piece for Plan B.

As with any tight game a goal can quickly change the complexion of a game. We need to keep plugging away to rattle the visitor’s brittle confidence. A top six finish is still a possibility, however remote, and it must remain the target until it is impossible. West Ham to win 3-1. COYI!

After The Lord Mayor’ Show: West Ham Must Put Euro Celebrations To One Side For Tottenham Showdown

A return to league action with an encounter that could go some way to determining the final top six placings. Can the Hammers come out on top?

In an ideal world there would have been a little bit longer to bask in the glory of the sensational Thursday night victory against Sevilla. But the reality of modern football is that, less than 72 hours later, West Ham must deal with the small matter of their unruly north London neighbours.

The Sevilla game really surpassed all expectations. A fantastic effort from the team, coaching staff and supporters had the stadium rocking late into the east London evening. It has been a long wait but at last the latest generation of Hammer’s fans have a special European moment to call their own. The excitement and anxiety of sudden death cup games, the mighty and incessant roar of the crowd, the thrill and atmosphere of floodlit football and the glory of a famous comeback against esteemed opponents. Now we just have to repeat it two more times and it’s all back to Sevilla for the final. The occasion was all the sweeter due to how long we have had to wait for it. Could the passion be reproduced if European football was expected every season?

It was excellent performances all round from front to back on Thursday. Everyone played their part and for any limitations in technique there may be, we can never fault the effort and commitment. The subtle change of formation – more of a 4-3-3 than the usual 4-2-3-1 – with Manuel Lanzini sitting deeper and closer to Declan Rice, got the best out of Tomas Soucek. When Soucek is left to do what he is good at – breaking up opposition attacks at one end and getting into the box at the other – he is at his brilliant best.

The nature of the winning goal, scored by Andriy Yarmolenko, made the whole evening even more emotional than it already was. I think I had almost resigned myself to a penalty shootout by the time the unexpected winner unfolded, almost as if it were in slow motion.

There didn’t appear to be any imminent danger when the ball was worked out wide to Pablo Fornals on the left. However, the Spaniard cut inside and unleashed a powerful drive which Bono, the Sevilla keeper, was unable to hold. The ball ran free and there was Yarmolenko to roll the ball into the net. Bono made a desperate attempt at recovery but still couldn’t find what he was looking for. A brief moment of VAR anxiety and then pandemonium.

Cue a tense, nail-biting finale. The referee, who had previously been impervious to the serial Sevilla time-wasting, prolonged the agony with an extra two minutes that he had found somewhere, but the Hammer’s stood firm, and a famous victory was sealed.

I’m reasonably happy with Lyon as quarter final opponents. I would have been even happier with a semi final against the winner of Braga vs Rangers tie – the equivalent of getting a bye into the final – but we need fear no-one. West Ham are now fourth favourites to win the competition behind the three Champions League flops, Barcelona, RB Leipzig, and Atalanta. I’m undecided on my pick between Barcelona and Eintracht Frankfurt for the semis.  The glamour of a tie with Barca is undoubted while Frankfurt feels like the path of least resistance, and would be a repeat of 1976. For students of form, the two German survivors play each other in the Bundesliga today.

They say that after the Lord Mayor’s show comes the donkey cart – but that’s enough about Eric Dier. In some ways facing Tottenham, rather than say, Burnley or Everton, may be a good thing in terms of player motivation after the physical and emotional excesses of midweek. There is nothing like a derby and local pride to restore instant focus. I’ve no doubt David Moyes will get the players up for it, although the fear must be that his team will become leggy as the game progresses, most have played the full two hour on Thursday.

It has been an inconsistently mixed bag at Tottenham since the appointment of Conte in November. It is difficult to imagine a harmonious long-term relationship between manager and chairman with obvious friction barely below the surface. Still, they are marginally better placed than West Ham at the moment in the quest for a top six finish. It is a more counterattacking unit than in the past, so it will be interesting to see how that pans out today, given it is also the Hammer’s preference. As in much of the recent past, the home side rely heavily on the partnership between Kane and Son for goals and assists. It will be West Ham’s challenge to keep them quiet.

Conte has been favouring a 3-4-3 formation and I wonder whether Moyes might decide to match him up today. Perhaps Aaron Cresswell dropping into a back three with Ryan Fredericks and Ben Johnson playing as wing backs. A front three of Said Benrahma, Michail Antonio and Fornals, and, of course, Rice and Soucek patrolling the centre of midfield. There has been much speculation about Yarmolenko starting, but I would still see him being more effective as a second half impact substitute.

After this game is an international break where hopefully as many players as possible can get a decent breather. There really is nothing to be learned for Southgate in Rice being involved in meaningless friendlies against Switzerland and the Ivory Coast. Soucek, on the other hand, will surely feature for the Czech Republic in the World Cup qualifier with Sweden.

It is a difficult match to call today. The two teams are evenly matched, and derby games are always unpredictable. It is unlikely that West Ham will experience no aftereffects from their midweek adventures. Not losing may be of utmost importance to both sides which could make for a cagey, rather than all-action, affair. A share of the spoils it is then, with a nervy 1-1 draw. COYI!