West Ham: Four wins might do it: Beginning with Sticky Toffee Fixture

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?

West Ham’s Top Four Odyssey: Nobody told me there’d be days like these!

The clouds have lifted, the sky is blue and West Ham’s road to a spectacular top four finish is looking clear – unless, that is, they get stuck against the Toffees

Successive defeats and an injury ravaged squad had seen menacing dark clouds rolling in on West Ham’s top four aspirations.  But just as it gets darkest before dawn, those negative thoughts were blown away by a superb, barnstorming victory at Turf Moor on Monday night.

The surprise return of a turbo-charged Michail Antonio, the awakening of Said Benrahma and the re-birth of Manuel Lanzini united to give notice that while many in the media may “have thought it was all over”, it isn’t now! The fat lady can put her feet up for a few more weeks, yet.

More good news was to come last night when this season’s West Ham nemesis, Newcastle United, gratefully returned part of the favour by beating Leicester, 4-2. Both Leicester and Brendan Rodgers have previous with letting good positions slip and their one-time grip on third place is now looking decidedly precarious. Picking up points against Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs is no certainty.

Games towards the latter stages of the season are notoriously difficult to call, as an increasing number of teams are left with little left to play for. The champions, runner-up and relegation places are to all intents and purposes sealed leaving only Champion’s League qualification and the crumbs of the Europa League up for grabs.

The race for those remaining two top four places is realistically down to Leicester, Chelsea, West Ham and Liverpool. Tottenham are sure to be in denial until the last mouthful of lasagne confirms otherwise but it is beyond them to outpoint three of the above. Not to say that the north Londoners couldn’t finish above West Ham, should the Hammers fall away badly, but best not to think about that.

On paper, West Ham and Liverpool have the easiest of the run-ins. Chelsea are difficult to beat but would do exceptionally well not to drop points from games against Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester and Villa. The re-scheduled Manchester United – Liverpool game could well prove a pivotal moment in a congested programme for the Red Devils. It’s a shame that second place already looks nailed on for them. Hopefully, local rivalry will not allow them to take it easy.

All of this speculative daydreaming would become inconsequential, of course, if the Hammers are unable to keep their end up. As much as we might fancy the run-in, no game is going to be a straightforward. As the tension mounts there will be psychological obstacles as well as the opposition to overcome. With less to lose in terms of expectation, and being considered as rank outsiders, it may hopefully take some of the pressure off. It will still be a huge test of character. Although the ideal would be to win each of the four remaining games, maybe we can get away with one draw.

The first of those four games is arguably the toughest, when Everton visit the London Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Toffees started the season at a blistering pace but have been largely flat and inconsistent ever since. They look like a collection of potentially fine players without any cohesion or spirit. As with Pellegrini’s Hammers, Everton have spent large on players who are big on reputation, but light on attitude or application. The times that I have watched them recently, they have been predictable and short on ideas. Despite this, they are still in with a shout of the Europa League and cannot be dismissed.

As ever, David Moyes has been coy about the state of the injury situation. Not aware of any new knocks being picked up, the key questions pertain to the return to action, or otherwise, of Declan Rice and Angelo Ogbonna. It would be a massive boost to have them both available. The success of Lanzini in defensive midfield on Monday may allow Moyes to exercise greater caution in the timing of Rice’s return.

The dilemma for Moyes is that an opposition midfield of Doucoure, Allan and Gomes will not give the Hammers the same room that they exploited so well at Burnley. Both Newcastle and Chelsea stifled West Ham by denying space for their runners. Although, the Hammer’s attacking dynamic is very different with Antonio back in the picture, Moyes must find the right balance between getting players forward and not being overrun in midfield.

Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined West Ham being in the mix for the Champion’s League with just four games of the season to go. It’s usually a tense relegation battle or midtable obscurity by now. I’m not quite sure what to expect or how to handle the raised expectations. It seems just as tense as when we are at the bottom and the same hypothetical ‘if-only’ thoughts frequently flash through my  mind – if-only we hadn’t thrown away a three goal lead against Arsenal.

All we can ask is that manager and team give it a real go. No-one can complain if they fall short. It’s been a magnificent effort.

My gut feel is a 2-0 home win, but I will wait to see what the psychic octopus predicts before committing.