At ten minutes past two on Sunday afternoon the worst prophecies of calamitous doom looked as if they would all be coming to fruition. This was going to be a rout against a rampant Arsenal side that would obliterate the Hammers relatively respectable goal difference advantage and leave them teetering despondently on the edge of relegation abyss.
Miraculously, something changed. Perhaps it involved a hint of complacency from the visitors but suddenly, West Ham were pressing higher up the pitch, the full-backs got to grips with the danger from the flanks, the composure of the Arsenal midfield was rattled, and space was intelligently exploited behind the high line of the Gunner’s defence.
Anguish was replaced with anticipation and action and the type of spirited comeback where a deserved draw ends up feeling much more like victory. As satisfying as the performance was, it naturally raised questions as to where the spirit and intensity on show had been hiding all season. How had timid and cautious transformed into dynamic and confident? We had briefly seen an equivalent spirit and intensity when entertaining Tottenham in August but otherwise it has been distinctly absent. Is it a feature reserved solely for one-off London derby occasions? And will the penny finally drop that if you give the crowd something to shout about, then the London Stadium atmosphere can be as electric as you want?
The point earned was a welcome boost in the relegation struggle but has to be followed up in the remaining fixtures with equally positive displays. There is still plenty of opportunity to win and lose points and no chickens can yet be counted. It will be revealing to see how much of the new found adventure is taken to the game at Bournemouth when hostilities resume at the weekend.
In the meantime, there is the matter of a European Conference quarter final second leg with Gent to be played against the backdrop of increasing speculation on the future of David Moyes as West Ham manager. With so much online football ‘news’ tending towards fantasy it is impossible to sort the believable from what we would like to believe. But stories about gentlemen’s agreements and new managerial targets are starting to become commonplace, even in more mainstream outlets. The latest names thrown into the ring being Arne Slot of Feyenoord and Paulo Fonseca of Lille.
What any agreement between Moyes and the club to part ways in the summer would mean for the rest of this season is intriguing. Winning the Europa Conference would be a welcome addition to the threadbare Honours section of the manager’s CV. Is that sufficient motivation for the Scot to throw caution to the wind and risk the level of bravery that is often required to win knock-out competitions.
In theory, the Hammers should be red-hot favourites to reach the final. The draw has been kindly to the Hammers. Neither Gent, Anderlecht or AZ Alkmaar should prove insurmountable stumbling blocks on the march to Prague. But as we know from West Ham’s extensive back catalogue of banana skins, these matches frequently don’t go to plan. Nothing can be taken for granted!
Most observers agreed West Ham were fortunate to come away from the first leg on level pegging. An ultra cautious team selection surrendered all the initiative to the attack minded Belgian side who showed plenty of spirt but (fortunately) little real quality with the possession they were gifted. Surely the approach today will be nowhere near as negative and that all concerned will be going flat out to win the tie in normal time.
Angelo Ogbonna sits out the game through suspension while Gianluca Scamacca is now a long-term injury absentee. Nayef Aguerd should be available for selection after missing the weekend action and may well partner Kurt Zouma in the centre of defence. Surely tonight would be the ideal time to give Maxwell Cornet a starting position in what I’m hoping will be as strong a team as possible: Areola, Kehrer, Zouma, Aguerd, Emerson, Rice, Downes, Paqueta, Bowen, Ings, Cornet
There is a worry that too much is being read into the performance against Arsenal. It has certainly lifted the mood for now, but we need to see more evidence before we can call it a turnaround. A good start would be the Hammers demonstrating their intent with an efficient and positive victory to seal next month’s semi-final berth. COYI!