It is the round of 32 in the Carabao League Cup. Following this there are just three more matches before booking a date at Wembley (OK, four games if you include the two-legged semi-final). It is yet another crack at finally ending a forty year famine in the West Ham trophy cabinet. Several generations of Hammer’s fans have never experienced the joy of cup success.
When the 4th round draw takes place in Milton Keynes later tonight, there will be somewhere between 7 and 14 Premier League balls rattling around in the bowl. If there are only 7 it will unfortunately mean the Hammers have already been eliminated but I don’t see that being the case. There was only one high profile exit from the Tuesday night ties (and a most amusing one at that) and it would be nice to see a few more upsets this evening – just not at Oxford. And let’s get this one out of the way before we have a good laugh at Tottenham.
West Ham will have to negotiate the hostile Joey Beauchamp Trail on their way to Oxfords’s Kassam Stadium. Named after the Hammer’s courageous 1994 summer signing, in commemoration of his 58 day West Ham career, it is known to be both treacherous and unforgiving. Reading Beauchamp’s interview on how the commute made his time at Upton Park a living nightmare was very entertaining. Apparently, the winger would have gone to the very top of the game if only he had known how to apply for a Young Person’s Railcard. I am looking forward to the Man Versus Wild re-enactment with Bear Grylls on Discovery Channel later in the year.
Tonight will be the fourth time that West Ham have faced Oxford United in the League Cup (1986 (H), 1990 (A) and 2010(H)) with each match going to the way of the home side. In 1986 and 1990 both teams were playing their football in the same division, while in 2010 it was Premier League against League Two. In that most recent encounter, Avram Grant’s side only managed to win the game through a scrappy stoppage time winner from Scott Parker. It was, however, a springboard for an unlikely cup run that included wins against Sunderland, Stoke City and Manchester United before losing out in a two-legged semi-final with Birmingham. The Hammers have famously never won the League Cup despite a couple of final appearances – something that can’t be said about tonight’s opponents who lifted it during its Milk Cup guise in 1985/86.
As with the majority of other Premier League managers, Manuel Pellegrini will seek to dabble with squad rotation for tonight’s clash. With things going well in the Premier League and a top six clash with Bournemouth coming up at the weekend, Pellegrini will want to put out a team capable of doing just enough to win in normal time, without the risk of further injuries to key players. With the League Cup being the most ‘winnable’ of domestic competitions, most fans will be looking for a side that is strong enough to guarantee progression to the next round. More than anything, we dream of cup success – as we enter the longest barren spell in the club’s senior history (if you ignore the war years).
It will be interesting to see what type of lineup the manager goes for. Maybe starts for the likes of Roberto, Pablo Zabaleta, Fabian Balbuena, Jack Wilshere, Robert Snodgrass, Carlos Sanchez and Albian Ajeti or the involvement of promising youngsters such as Nathan Holland, Ben Johnson, and Goncarlo Cardoso. If Holland isn’t in the squad I will eat my hat (if I had one). It will be a difficult balancing act but hopefully Pellegrini is truly prioritising this competition, both in words and in deed.
A top half Premier League side should easily have enough in their locker to see off a mid-table League One side; even away from home with a smattering of fringe squad players – provided that the attitude is right. These types of games have traditionally been a challenge for the Hammers – facing an opponent who will have nothing to lose. With the recent bout of optimism around the club can we now start to measure Pellegrini’s West Ham by a different yardstick – one that reflects a far greater level of professionalism? I hope so. West Ham to win by two clear goals.