Battle Lines Drawn For The League’s Premier City Versus United Clash

It’s third against fourth at the Etihad Stadium. Can West Ham exceed expectation and return from Manchester with more than hard luck stories?

If at the start of the season I had been asked to rank all West Ham’s games from most to least winnable, I would without hesitation have placed away to Manchester City at the very end of the list.

Since City won the Abu Dhabi lottery, the only West Ham victory on their patch was in September 2015, when Slaven Bilic’s Payet-inspired team beat Pellegini’s City by two goals to one. Prior to that that you need to go back to April, 2003 for another league success. Freddie Kanoute’s solitary goal enough to keep Trevor Brooking’s heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful, great escape dream alive.

Despite trailing Chelsea in the current standings, City remain most people’s favourites to retain the Premier League title. If that comes to pass then it will be four in six years for Guardiola. No doubt, he is a gifted coach who is able to manage the egos of superstar players – but a bottomless pit of resources must also come in handy. He was certainly an upgrade on Pellegrini, yet I’m not convinced that the players he has brought in measure up in character to those that have left since his arrival – Toure, Kompany, Silva, Aguero, for example – even if he has an exceedingly useful squad to call upon.

A stark contrast to our own humble club who, prior to kick-off, are a single place and three points behind the champions. A remarkable achievement by David Moyes and his team given the imbalance in resources. Perhaps Moyes is not the right type of manager for the super rich clubs (as his time at the other United might suggest) but he is looking a perfect match for the patient team building and development model now underway in east London.

With new investment on the cards, the future of the club is looking much brighter than it has for some time. A complete turnaround from the storm clouds of Burnley in March 2018. Does anyone else think that in the publicity shot doing the rounds, Daniel Kretinsky looks menacing rather than friendly or enigmatic? The kind of sinister grin you might see from a movie villain about to reveal his collection of pliers, bolt croppers, and saws to a terrified captive.

Great to see West Ham seal top spot in their Europa League group with a largely second eleven coasting to a comfortable win in Vienna. The fringe players (including several exciting academy prospects) have done the club proud in qualifying, but may get fewer opportunities to impress once the round of sixteen arrives next March. Here’s hoping all the Spanish clubs are either still holding on in the Champion’s League or have been eliminated from the Europa League by then – particularly Sevilla, the serial winners of the trophy.

I’m not expecting any surprises in today’s line-up which should be pretty much the same team that lost at Wolverhampton. I do have a suspicion that Vladimir Coufal might return in place of Ben Johnson (for his greater attacking threat) and while I would welcome a look at a Kurt Zouma – Issa Diop paring in central defence, I believe Moyes will stick with Craig Dawson.

City may be without De Bruyne, Grealish and Foden and could start with a front three of Mahrez, Sterling and Jesus. Plenty of variety but no-one obviously leading the line. A different type of challenge for the Hammers defensively and one that will require complete concentration throughout. An afternoon of the opposition bossing possession, seeking to wear down our legs and creating openings with bursts of quick and intricate passing.

Surrendering the lion’s share is not an unreasonable tactic but the key to taking something from the game will be the ability to retain possession and make good use of the ball when we have it. It needs to be better than at Molineux. Giving the ball away cheaply only increases the pressure and leaving Michail Antonio isolated up front will not unsettle the hosts defence. Much will depend on how effectively the attacking midfield three can keep the ball, make the right decisions. and get forward quickly enough in support of Antonio. We can’t hold out for penalties this time.

These types of game can be an uncomfortable watch sometimes – and tough on the fingernails. Even if there is a tactical fascination unfolding it is difficult to appreciate it in real time. Expectations are not high of a result but there is always hope. We were unlucky to come away with nothing last season and maybe the football gods feel they owe us something in return. A 1-1 draw, perhaps. COYI!

Goodnight Vienna as Hammers Waltz into Europa League Last 16

On Thursday evening West Ham waltzed into the last 16 knockout stages of the Europa League with yet another professional performance without playing as well as we can. With a little more composure in front of goal it could have been four or five nil but with eight changes it was still a more than satisfactory performance. With the other game in the group between Dinamo Zagreb and Genk ending 1-1 it would have only needed a draw in Vienna to top the group with a game still to play, but the confidence that the fringe players will have gained from the comfortable victory bodes well for the remainder of the season. With so many games to play in such a short space of time (10 in 31 days), many of the squad players are likely to be called upon.

Four clean sheets and just two goals conceded in five games is the best defensive performance of all 32 teams in the Europa League. In this game some of our most important and influential players (such as Zouma, Rice and Antonio) were not needed and most of the other Premier League regulars did not play full games. There were many good performances but one that stood out for me was that of Coufal who I believe should regain his place in the league team this weekend. It was also good to see a 17 year old debutant given his chance and he so nearly scored too. I wonder how many fringe players will be given an opportunity in the final group game against Dinamo Zagreb?

This weekend’s Premier League game away to Manchester City is about as tough as it gets. Along with Chelsea and Liverpool, City are undoubtedly one of the three standout teams that will contest the title. It wasn’t that long ago that we spoke about the elite six, but now in my opinion there are only three teams that are well ahead of the rest. We are one of a few teams that will be fighting for that fourth spot in the table. City will be desperate for revenge after we dumped them out of the League Cup, a competition that they have dominated for the last five years. They were excellent when disposing of PSG to top their Champions League group on Wednesday and we will be doing very well to come out of the game with a point. But it’s not Impossible if we are at our best and they are not. Crystal Palace won there recently so I hope we can do the same, but I wouldn’t underestimate how difficult it will be.

Bookmakers recognise the gulf between the top three and the rest, but their odds set for this game are even more extreme than the league positions would suggest was appropriate. City are at home and one would expect them to be favourites of course. They are currently second in the league on 26 points, just three points ahead of ourselves in fourth. Recent form is similar although we were a little disappointing in Wolverhampton last week. Nevertheless, based on this, one wouldn’t expect us to be the biggest outsiders in all the games this weekend. But we are and I’ve seen odds of up to 10/1 on a West Ham victory and around 6/1 on a draw. City on the other hand are around 2/9. Astonishing really given the closeness of league form and positions.

I am a little less confident for a positive result in this game compared to our previous fixtures this season, but wearing my optimistic hat I will be hoping for a draw, and predict 1-1 with Dawson scoring our goal with a header from a corner. Dawson to score the first goal in the game attracts odds of around 50/1. The odds are the same for him to score the last goal in the game. I’ll go for the latter with my fun bet this week. What are the chances?