Hammers Pledge City Support By Refusing To Compete In The Champion’s League

With a Premier League points deduction mooted for Manchester City, tonight’s storm affected fixture takes on the potential of a relegation six-pointer

The re-scheduled visit of West Ham to Manchester City, previously blown away by Storm Ciara, has now been overshadowed by the fall-out from Storm Mansour. With the Hammers unlikely to be pulling up any trees themselves at the Etihad (or should that be Mansour) stadium this evening, the footballing world has been wetting its collecting pants over the hosts impending ban from European competition.

It is possible that if the UEFA sanctions are sustained, then the Premier League will also be forced to act – with a points deduction that could effectively turn tonight’s encounter into a relegation six pointer.

The Abu Dhabi millions will, no doubt, ensure the story runs and runs through whichever legal avenues they choose to pursue it. City’s owners have, to date, demonstrated a staggering arrogance in their response to the allegations of misrepresenting the true source of sponsorship funds, originally leaked in the German press. Rather than share their apparent ‘irrefutable’ evidence that the charges are incorrect, their defence has appeared to be that supreme wealth puts them above the law – as it would do in their home country.

On the face of it (and from what we know from the leaks), it looks apparent that City broke the rules as they stand. That’s not to say that the rules are necessarily sensible. They do appear drafted to preserve the status quo rather than really addressing any concept of financial fair play – if that means at least creating the semblance of a level playing field. There are also very valid questions as to whether all serially big spending clubs were being judged equally.

Reaction to the ban has been interesting and, for me, has parallels to our own Tevezgate episode – where the majority of West Ham fans felt themselves to be victims while everyone else believed us to be as guilty as hell – breaking another of football’s difficult to understand rules. The outrage form City fans has likewise been seismic.

Year on year, football has become more of a media product and less concerned with the afternoon out for the matchday supporter. The proliferation of streaming services and the involvement of tech giants will only make matters worse over time. The packaging of the product is more important than what is inside the box. Media money is king and the role of those in attendance is mainly to create atmosphere for the cameras – arguably they should be paid as ‘extras’.

The Champion’s League sits at the top of the football money tree. Once the icing on the cake, it has become the cake itself and its participants turned into brands rather than clubs. It is only a matter of time, I think, before CL games are switched to weekends in order to better exploit the global TV audience – a UK evening kick-off is just too inconvenient for the armchair followers in Asia and North America. The Premier League will be forced to shuffle its scheduling to even more annoying times accordingly.

Perhaps we should applaud our own owners for refusing to compete in the Champion’s League – it seems they have the supporter’s interests at heart after all.

I’m joking by the way (about our owners). But it wouldn’t bother me if the ‘elite’ clubs broke away to form a European super league – if resigning from the Premier League was a pre-requisite. We could then return to the sanity of a competitive domestic league that had true financial fair play with fixed squad sizes and a monetary salary cap.  It could still be possible to qualify for a new knock-out European competition – maybe we could call it, the European Cup. Sadly, I don’t really expect any of that to happen.

As for the game itself, nothing has materially changed from when it was originally scheduled. The European ban will be a media talking point (a pleasant relief from VAR) but I don’t see it impacting performances on the pitch. For West Ham, this and the Liverpool game remain damage limitation exercises and coming away from the two games without a substantially worse goal difference may be counted as a success.

David Moyes plan will be one of containment but without any ideas what to do if/ when the defences are eventually breached. From his pre-match comments it sounded like he is reluctant to ‘unleash’ Jarrod Bowen for tonight’s fixture – possibly not wanting to risk him in a game that he believes we will lose anyway.

In theory, legs should be fresh after a two week break but prior experience doesn’t back up that view, where players have returned from breaks more rusty than revived. West Ham are typically slow starters after every break.

Nevertheless, we continue to live in hope and maybe a miracle can occur, despite the body of evidence that would indicate otherwise. If we are to survive, we should be looking to cobble together six points or so between now and the end of March. I don’t see any of them coming here.

Can West Ham spring a major surprise at the Etihad?

I’ve just been re-reading the article I wrote prior to the away game at Manchester City originally scheduled for the Sunday before last. Most of what I wrote still stands, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Climatically, not only have we endured Storm Ciara, the reason for the postponement of the original game, but this was followed a week later by Storm Denis wreaking havoc across much of the country with strong winds and heavy rain.

But in a football sense, perhaps the biggest storm has been the one that has descended upon the blue half of Manchester, where the club have been found guilty and been given quite a kicking by Uefa, who showed no love on Valentines Day by dishing out their stiffest sanctions ever, penalties imposed for breaches of Financial Fair Play and licensing rules. I guess they’ve been dancing in the streets of Madrid and Barcelona especially, where there is a belief that City have got just what they deserved, and many feel the same about Paris St Germain too. I doubt that it is just the Spanish either, and suspect there are wry smiles in Italy and Germany also.

City have had massive success domestically in the last couple of seasons and were generally felt to be the best team in the country, until Liverpool won the Champions League last season and have literally run away with the Premier League this time around, holding an almost unassailable lead. Many will feel that there are parallels with the game of Rugby Union, where the Premiership, which has now been in existence for 32 years, slightly longer than its football counterpart, is dominated by money. I wrote an article recently that demonstrated the link between revenue and success in football (West Ham were the exception!), and I believe that Rugby Union has similar ills. For me, money is ruining both games, with teams chasing success using win-at-all-costs strategies. In Rugby Union, Saracens, the leading, and most successful team in recent times, were found guilty of breaching salary cap regulations, and were given a points deduction so severe that it guaranteed relegation at the end of this season.

City’s punishment is massive too, although it is of a European not domestic nature. The fine of around £25 million will not harm them; perhaps the cruellest sanction from their viewpoint is the two year ban from European competition? What will this do to enable them to retain their renowned manager, and their leading players? And more than that will they be able to attract the top players going forward? I suspect not.

The big difference between the Saracens and Manchester City situations is very clear though. Whilst Saracens have accepted their punishment and are not contesting the fine and points deduction which means relegation, it would appear that this will not be true for City. From what I’ve read they have signalled their intent to make a legal challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and of course have limitless funds to appeal and challenge the decision. Effectively I reckon they could tie up the decision for years to come with appeals and legal challenges.Of course it is not their first offence. They received a massive fine a few years ago for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations, and haven’t there been issues around breach of transfer rules, and a ban on signing Academy players in recent times too?

I don’t know the rights and wrongs of all this, and really don’t understand the intricacies of the Financial Fair Play regulations. What I do know is that, for me, the financial imbalance in the revenues of the leading football clubs when compared to the rest, does nothing for the game of football, and leads to a predictability that makes Premier League football boring. What effect will the last week have on this fixture, City’s first game since the bombshell was dropped? Will it demoralise the players or lead to an increased resolve?

From a West Ham viewpoint the players have been taking their mid-winter break, and in fact we haven’t played a game now for two and a half weeks. The players resumed training last Saturday and should certainly feel fresh. New signings on the pitch and coaching staff have hopefully given the team a lift, although rumblings of discontent from the fans in respect of the owners continue to grow.

In normal circumstances, to play Manchester City away from home is as tough a fixture as you can get. They beat us 5-0 at the London Stadium on the season’s opening day, but whilst they haven’t been quite as formidable this season as last, they are still easily the second best team in the country. They have failed to score for two games in a row, so must be relishing the thought that West Ham are the next team up. I wonder how long it is since City failed to score for three games in a row?

Hopefully the majority of our squad are now fit, and when you add the signings of Soucek who made a promising debut, and Bowen who arrives with many praising his potential, I am confident that we can score move forward from here. My main worry is that we face the two toughest games in the calendar next, and hope that we don’t lose confidence, or too much ground, on the teams around us.

I read on social media that some of our fans hated Tottenham’s last minute winner against Villa. Whilst not being keen on our neighbours from North London, surely we need to look at the bigger picture and be pleased with the result, which adds to the problems of Villa, one of our main rivals in the relegation fight?

If you look at the games that we all have to play, then all teams around us have difficult fixtures in the run-in, although ours come sooner rather than later. We really need to stay in touch with the others over the course of the next few games, and then when we get to the final half dozen or so games, it will be in our own hands, with (on paper) some fixtures that are most definitely winnable.

Who will be in our line-up against City? Of course we’ll have Fabianski in goal. But will he choose the experienced but fading Zabaleta for a final hurrah against his old club, or the faster, but perhaps more error-prone Fredericks at right back? Balbuena’s wretched form surely ensures starts for Diop and Ogbonna, whilst Cresswell is most definitely a safer option at left back than Masuaku.

In midfield I assume he will have three “defensive-minded” players for this game, which I reckon will be Rice, Noble and Soucek. Surely he can’t be tempted to use Sanchez, can he? This leaves three more places to be filled for more attacking players and a choice from Haller, Antonio, Bowen, Fornals, Lanzini, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Masuaku, Snodgrass and Ajeti. Have I forgotten anyone? I don’t think that any of the youngsters like Silva or Ngakia will be considered for this game.

Of course we all have our own opinions, but I would expect to see Antonio, Bowen and Anderson as the three. That would surely be the fastest trio, adding more pace to the side? That would be my choice. I’m sure others (including the manager) may have differing opinions. For more midfield “energy” then perhaps Snodgrass could play instead of Noble, or if we intend to be even more defensive minded then he could play in addition, and only have two really “offensive” players. I hope not. We have a lot of good attacking players in the squad, and if used correctly, I’m sure we can score goals. The problem will be keeping them out!

This Might Hurt A Bit: Part One Of West Ham’s Damage Limitation Double Header

West Ham’s visits to the north-west are rarely fruitful. Coming away from today’s encounter against Manchester City with self-respect intact is possibly the best we can hope for

Several years ago, I had an abscess on the back of my leg. The doctor decided he needed  cut it out out but that due to its location behind the knee it would not be possible to administer a local anaesthetic. Just before scalpel cut into my skin he warned me: “this might hurt a bit.” He wasn’t wrong. To make matters worse, the wound had to kept open until all signs of the infection had gone. This involved opening up the flaps of skin and cleaning it out every few days. That too hurt a bit. In the end, though, it was a happy ending, and a complete recovery was made.

The story seemed a perfect metaphor for West Ham’s current predicament. Having slipped into the bottom three, they now face consecutive away games against the two best teams in the land. There is going to be pain – and things will get much worse before any hope of getting better. As to whether this story too will have a happy ending depends as much on others as it does on the Hammer’s own efforts. Will there be three worse sides in a season where 40 points is looking increasingly like the minimum requirement for safety.

My expectations for the next two games are set very low. West Ham are sure to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League all-time losses table (377 to Everton’s 375) Anything better than zero points but with the goal difference deteriorating by less than five goals would be a bonus. It is damage limitation pure and simple.

These two fixtures are separated by the Premier League’s first ever mid-season break; as if the season isn’t already interrupted enough by international breaks. For a team that is not in Europe, gets eliminated in the early rounds of the cup and runs less than all the others, West Ham really don’t need a rest. Best just to get it over with.

I always try to find some crumbs of optimism but reality invariably gets in the way. Any team suffering a relative dip in form, as City are right now, tend to find a visit from the Hammers the prefect antidote. Guardiola will have given up any hope of the title but he will want to finish as strongly as possible. His primary target will be the Champion’s League but with a week’s break there is no imperative to rest players for this one. At least they will be without Sterling today.

There has been a clamour among supporters for Declan Rice to switch into defence for this game, particularly in light of last weekend’s Keystone Cops defending. But following on from David Moyes comments that Rice is arguably the best holding midfield player in the league, I am not sure this will happen.  In fact, with City being a team that like to pass through the opposition and gradually wear them down I am not convinced this would be the best policy. If West Ham are to get anything out of the game (even if it is merely a sense of pride in having made a game of it) they need to be strong and compact throughout and break forward quickly. If City have a weakness it is to rapid counter attacks. A central midfield partnership of Rice and Tomas Soucek would be my choice for keeping a good shape and not conceding lots of unnecessary free-kicks just outside the penalty area.

It will be interesting to get a first look at Jarrod Bowen who I believe will partner Michail Antonio as the most advanced of the Hammers. I can see no reason why Sebastien Haller would merit a starting berth in a game like this. As mentioned last week I find Moyes stance with Pablo Fornals has been puzzling – just when he was finding form he has been relegated to the sidelines. I expect Robert Snodgrass will again be preferred to the Spaniard today.

Graham Scott from Oxfordshire is the matchday referee. Scott is one of the league’s leading red card issuers so far this season and was previously in charge of the Hammer’s 4-0 win against Bournemouth. Doing his very best to create some much needed talking points from the VAR eye in the sky will be Craig Pawson.

Top media pundits Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are united in predicting an emphatic Hammer’s defeat, at 3-0 and 4-0 respectively. If there is anything united among West Ham fans it is desire for new owners. We have regularly highlighted the obvious lack of direction or strategy at the club on this blog, and we are by no means alone in that regard. But now, several mainstream media journalists have jumped on the bandwagon to ridicule the two Daves. It is a sad state of affairs and the reaction by the board to the comments made on Sky Sports were a massive own goal. Still I don’t see any chance of the them selling up until after the 2023 repayment deadline in the stadium agreement. Equally, anyone hoping that relegation would spur them into selling is sadly misguided in my view. It would only prolong the agony.

As for today’s game I can’t help thinking that losing by only two goals would represent a good result. We can live in hope that the unexpected might happen, though – at least for the first twenty minutes or so.

After the debacle of the last twenty minutes against Brighton, Prexit is getting nearer. Can West Ham spring a major surprise at the Etihad?

If we supported any other team we would have been in shock after the last twenty minutes of the Brighton game last weekend. But as we are West Ham fans we’ve seen it all before, and many of us could see what was about to happen before it actually did. Nevertheless as we trudged back to Stratford Station after the game, being constantly stopped by those wretched stop-go boards which come into operation at random intervals that appear to have little logic to them, we were all scratching our heads and grumbling about what we’d just witnessed.

It was a crazy afternoon where all of the bottom six in the Premier League occupied places in the bottom three at one time or another between 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock. When we were in the lead in the game at one stage we had climbed up to 15th in the table (in-play). We led 2-0 at the interval, thanks to a near post goal from Diop, and a deflected shot from Snodgrass. Brighton emerged after the break on the front foot and caught us cold, and had soon reduced the deficit when Fabianski’s weak punch rebounded off Ogbonna into the net. Was Fabianski fouled? Would we be reprieved by VAR? Of course not.

It was looking a bit ominous as Brighton seemed to gain more confidence and increased possession and attacking threat. But no, we restored our two goal lead with yet another deflection to a Snodgrass shot to make the score 3-1. With a little over a quarter of an hour to go the manager decided to take off Antonio. He had been terrorising the Brighton defenders all afternoon, but as usual was beginning to tire, and to save him from injury he was allocated a place in the comfy seats and replaced by Masuaku.

Within a couple of minutes Masuaku attempted a clearance which looped into the West Ham penalty area on the rebound from a Brighton player, which began a chain reaction of laughable defending that reminded me of the Marx Brothers for comical effect. Diop and Ogbonna were the initial culprits as they hesitated. Fabianski realising the problem rushed from goal only to be beaten to the ball by Gross who nipped in first, and the ball rolled agonisingly slowly into the goal off the post, barely reaching the net. “You are kidding me” uttered the West Ham fan sitting beside me. But I kid you not. It really happened.

It was now game on as Brighton pressed forward searching for the equaliser. Just a couple of minutes had gone by when a cross was not intercepted and Murray (who always scores against us) seemingly controlled the ball with his arm before scoring. But despair turned to relief when we spotted that Michael Oliver had spotted the handball and disallowed the goal. But wait, VAR got involved, and it seemed several minutes elapsed before there was a decision. The referee had disallowed the goal but VAR overturned it. I thought they could only do that if there was a clear and obvious error. I could see the handball from 100 yards away, and then they showed it on the big screens. It certainly looked like handball on there too. Booing broke out all around, but the referee accepted the decision of VAR and the goal stood.

How many points has the handball issue cost us this season? And how many points have we dropped from winning positions too? The total has now increased to 19 ensuring we extend our lead in that league table; unfortunately not a table we would want to be at the top of. So by the end of the game, where we just about held on for the draw, we were sitting in the relegation zone, with some tough upcoming fixtures, beginning with Manchester City and Liverpool away games either side of the winter break. Oh dear. We are well in the mire now.

So we now have 13 games to go with six at home and seven away. On paper the away fixtures are generally much tougher than the home games, but if we are to avoid dropping into the Championship with the long term ramifications of that, we need to start winning some games of football. I have studied the remaining fixtures for all six teams that currently look in most danger of going down, and whilst there are various people in the media who are highlighting our difficult fixtures that are coming up, I have to say that all six teams have equally tough games to face between now and the end of the season.

The problem that we have is that the harder fixtures on paper generally come up first and then it gets relatively easier towards the end. Somehow we have to try not to fall too far behind which would then mean we are trying to catch up. In five of the last six games we face Newcastle, Burnley, Norwich, Watford and Aston Villa – on paper an easier run of matches than the ones coming up next. If we can still be in touch by the beginning of April we will have every opportunity of staying up. Perhaps there could even be a last day relegation decider when we face Aston Villa at the London Stadium?

Manchester City away is tough. They beat us on our own ground 5-0 in the first game of this season, almost exactly six months ago to the day, but whilst they haven’t been quite as formidable this season as last, they are still easily the second best team in the country. They have failed to score for two games in a row, so must be relishing the thought of their next visitors. I have no idea how long it is since they failed to score for three games in a row, but I’ll bet it hasn’t happened for some time. And they haven’t won a home Premier League game since they beat Everton 2-1 on New Years Day.

With the imminent return of Anderson, the signings of Soucek who made a promising debut, and Bowen who arrives with many praising his potential, and also hoping that Antonio will be fit, then I am confident that we can score goals. What worries me is that I am not sure how we can avoid conceding them. Declan Rice has been massively important to our midfield, but he grew up as a centre back, and I wonder if any thought has been given to playing him there as part of three at the back, perhaps for the games against City and Liverpool. There is not a lot to lose in those two games as we are not expected to pick up any points, and it may be worth trying something different.

I have had to write this column well in advance this week so have no idea regarding injuries and availability. But perhaps we could line up something like this:

Fabianski, Zabaleta, Diop, Rice, Ogbonna, Cresswell, Snodgrass, Soucek, Anderson, Bowen, Antonio

That would leave Fredericks (who seems reluctant to use his pace going forward, and is making too many errors), Noble (who looks in need of a rest, and pace could be more important than usual in the next 2 games), Lanzini (who is so out of form and short on confidence), Masuaku (who to me should only be used as a forward) and Haller (who looks unfit and short of confidence) out of the starting eleven at the moment, but all will be needed in the games to come.

Haller (when he plays) really needs to play with someone close to him, whether it is Antonio, or perhaps Bowen could be the one. It was good to read that Silva is now fully recovered as he really does look like one for the future, but it is unlikely that many youngsters will be given any opportunities this season.

As fans we all have our own ideas as to the players we like, the team we would pick, the formation we would adopt, and generally how we would manage the side. And they would all be different. I’ve read so many opinions on social media. But, we are now in the hands of David Moyes and his coaching staff. We are in the bottom three, and are generally third favourites to go down. Can we stay up? Yes we can. Will we stay up? It is likely to be touch and go, but I hope so. A miracle at the Etihad would be welcome.