Do you remember the days when we could go to the stadium to watch football? It seems a long time ago now. The last home game that we saw was the Southampton game on 29th February 2020. 59,962 of us were there on that sunny afternoon and very few of us would have thought that it would be more than a year before we could come again. Apart from the 2000 who were lucky in the ballot to see the Manchester United game on 5 December last year, none of us have been able to watch our team but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The success of the vaccination programme in the UK means that there is a very good chance that when the 2021-22 season begins it will be in front of full capacity crowds. And even before then, it seems that a lucky 10,000 will be able to attend the final home game of the season, which ironically is against Southampton. Fingers crossed in the ballot.
As a season ticket holder in the Billy Bonds stand I have a good view of some of the pre-match warm ups which take place half an hour or so before kick off. The routine that I tend to watch closely is when the ten outfield players who are in the starting line up play five a side (with no goals) just working on retaining possession of the ball. I’ve often been impressed with the swift interchange of passing that takes place, and sometimes wished that this could be translated to the actual game that follows. But on Monday night at Burnley we were able to watch the team demonstrate these skills in a game.
Our performance was superb as we played some great stuff with high tempo against a Burnley side who surprised me with how good they were. They were just unlucky to come up against us at the top of our game. The only downside was our finishing as we should have had the game wrapped up long before the nervous end that they like to put us through. Antonio took his goals superbly as well as adding a candidate for the miss of the season, but we are a much better side when he is playing.
But so many others had superb games too. Fornals, Lanzini and Benrahma showed great flair whilst at the same time doing their bit as the team defended as a whole. In fact just about everyone looked in great form, even Diop, who after a shaky first half recovered well to put in an excellent second half performance alongside Dawson. I was especially pleased with Benrahma who has had his critics (including the manager) but who began to show some of the great promise and potential that I believe he has. I saw a few Brentford games on TV before he came to us and hoped that he could translate his wonderful skills to playing in the top flight after he joined us. He’s not quite there yet but I believe he will be an important player for us in the years to come.
There are so many outstanding candidates for the Hammer of the Year this time around. Normally there are just a couple of players that stand out in a season but this time any one of a number could win it. My vote would go to Coufal. It is probably quite unusual for a full back (or wing back?) to win but for me if there has been a better right back in a claret and blue shirt since Billy Bonds played in that position (Ray Stewart perhaps?) then I haven’t seen him. Coufal has been a wonderful acquisition, just like his fellow countryman Soucek.
We have already exceeded our 1998/99 fifth placed finish points total of 57 points, and sit in fifth place before this round of matches on 58 with four games to go. We’ll probably need to finish on 68-70 to end up in the top four, and that might not even be enough but I hope it will. 62 points is our Premier League best (in the 2015/16 final season at Upton Park) and surely we will go past that total. Looking at the fixtures to come then if we beat Everton in this game (or at least don’t lose the game) then I believe that should almost ensure a top six finish at the very least. It certainly helped us when Villa beat them last week.
But we want more than that, don’t we? I hold out hopes (if not quite expectations) of top four still, especially after Leicester began their annual implosion on Friday evening when capitulating to our 2020-21 nemesis, an improving Newcastle. I really wasn’t expecting that. Looking at their three remaining games how many points are they likely to finish with?
Leeds were worthy winners against Tottenham which was another result that helped our quest for a top four finish. But I have to say that I was massively disappointed with Manchester City’s casual approach to team selection, penalty taking, and all round effort against Chelsea. Even a draw in that game, which Manchester City should have wrapped up by half time, would have been a decent result for us, but the late winner puts Chelsea in the driving seat to finish third now. Liverpool’s win against Southampton, the poorest side in the Premier League in 2021 was not a surprise, but I was hoping for a shock there. We may need four wins to stay ahead of them. I’d love Manchester United to beat them but they have four fixtures in an eight day period which may mean they will not be at their best against the Merseysiders.
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. I’ve left Everton in this analysis despite bookmakers offering 100/1 on them finishing in a top four position. There is still a lot of football to be played and although they are very definite outsiders, those odds are generous, and they would still have an outside chance, albeit very slight, if they beat us. Tottenham will rely on others losing too, even more so after their defeat at Leeds, even if they manage to win their final three games. It could even come down to Tottenham beating Leicester in the final game to assist our cause. If we can keep winning we will put pressure on both Chelsea and Leicester who still have to face each other of course, but Liverpool are a big threat too.
Leicester (63 points, Goal Difference 20, 3 games to go) – Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham
Chelsea (64 points, Goal Difference 23, 3 games to go) – Arsenal, Leicester, Villa
West Ham (58 points, Goal Difference 11, 4 games to go) – Everton, Brighton, West Brom, Southampton
Liverpool (57 points, Goal Difference 18, 4 games to go) – Manchester United, West Brom, Burnley, Palace
Tottenham (56 points, Goal Difference 20, 3 games to go) – Wolves, Villa, Leicester
Everton (52 points, Goal Difference 3, 5 games to go) – West Ham, Sheffield United, Wolves, Manchester City, Villa (away)
We are still 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 four games.
I’ve been looking at the odds for the Premier League next season. Manchester City are odds on to retain their title, and the “self-named big six” plus Leicester are the only teams with odds of between 5/1 (Liverpool) and 66/1. Everton are eighth favourites at 100/1, and we are joint ninth favourites with Leeds at 150/1, showing that bookmakers don’t believe that our performance this season will be repeated next time around. Excellent seasons in the past have generally not been consolidated by West Ham but this time I am hoping that it will be. At the start of this season we were quoted at 750/1 to win it this time. All of these prices are immaterial really because Manchester City should easily win again, with possibly Liverpool and Chelsea as the only challengers.
Three points today would be great. What are the chances?