West Ham visit Old Trafford, but fans will be keeping an eye on results elsewhere too.

When you reach this stage of the season with less than a dozen games to go, then as a West Ham fan you start paying even closer attention to other games that are being played, especially those of the teams that are around us in the league table. On many occasions in past seasons the purpose has been to see if they are picking up points in the desperate scramble to avoid relegation. But this time around it is very different. We are interested from the point of view of finishing as high as possible in the table, perhaps qualifying for a place in Europe next season, and possibly even (whisper it quietly) a place in the Champions League.

Normally that would mean finishing in the top four, and most pundits are writing us off in that respect, believing that our wonderful run so far will come to an end before we reach the season’s finish. They may well be right but I hope not. How good would it be to prove them wrong? With a limited squad we have performed way beyond all expectations of even our most ardent supporters, and there is no reason why we cannot go all the way if all the cards fall in our favour, and results elsewhere help too.

Of course this season finishing in the top four might not even be enough to qualify for the Champions League. If there are two English teams that win either the Champions League or the Europa League, and they finish outside the top four in the Premier League then they would qualify for next season’s elite European competition alongside the teams that finish in the top three. There is a maximum of five places for any one country in the Champions League, and winning the previous season’s European tournaments takes precedence over league positions.

And this scenario could still happen. In the Europa League, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United have all reached the last 16, and if one of them should go on to win it and finish outside the Premier League top 4 they would qualify for next season’s Champions League. For this reason West Ham fans will be rooting for Olympiakos, Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan in the second legs on Thursday this week. But both Arsenal and Tottenham hold two goal leads from the first leg and are favourites to progress.

Similarly in the Champions League, Liverpool have already reached the last eight, and both Chelsea and Manchester City are well placed to join them, holding leads before their forthcoming home legs this week. I think we can disregard Manchester City in the Premier League as they will win it comfortably but we must hope that they, or one of the other foreign teams such as Bayern, PSG win the Champions League to prevent Liverpool and Chelsea from qualifying by the back door if they finish outside the domestic top four.

Of course none of this will matter if we don’t do the job ourselves in the league so we must continue to aim for as high a finish as possible, hopefully in the top three. Now this may well be beyond us but it is nice to think that it is still a possibility, and even still in our own hands with just eleven games to go. And the league results have been kind to us so far this weekend. Leeds holding Chelsea to a draw was a good result for us, and Burnley’s unexpected win at Everton was an even better one. This means that we go into today’s fixture (probably) still in fifth place just three points adrift of Chelsea with two games in hand, and two points ahead of Everton with a game in hand over them too. We could do with Sheffield United surprising Leicester today, but I can’t realistically see that happening, plus it would be good if Arsenal beat Tottenham, something I always hope for, and Wolves beat Liverpool on Monday night. Draws in those games wouldn’t be the worst results for us either. 

Apparently Manchester United are weakened by injuries for today’s game, and we must also hope that they want to hold themselves back a little for their return leg against AC Milan this week. We will be without Lingard of course, but I expect to see Benrahma in the number 10 role behind Antonio with Fornals and Bowen providing the other two attacking midfield roles. The back four pick themselves at the moment; Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell, as do Rice and Soucek in midfield. The only possible variation to this may mean a slightly more defensive line-up with Johnson replacing Bowen, who hasn’t looked at his best recently, in a 4-3-2-1 formation. Noble could even come into the equation but I’d prefer to see him held back and brought on in the last five minutes to help preserve our 2-0 lead! So my predictions are West Ham to win 2-0, Leicester to draw 2-2 with Sheffield United, Arsenal to beat Tottenham 2-1, and then Wolves to beat Liverpool 1-0 on Monday. I’m not hoping for too much am I? What are the chances?

Theatre Of Impossible Dreams: West Ham To Take A Passing Interest In Second Place

West Ham take a tilt at second placed Manchester United – fighting the unbeatable foe in a quest to reach the unreachable star of Champion’s League qualification

I was listening to a radio discussion in the week on the proposed changes to the Champion’s League – a plan to make the competition a closed shop for an elite group of super rich clubs. A large part of the argument for ‘inevitable’ change being the premise of a ‘huge shift in the way that football is consumed.’ Alas, football has become a product, rather than an experience.

Such discussions highlight again the dangerous path that the game is taking in deviating from its roots and treating the traditional fanbase as secondary to the worldwide TV audience. Greed is prioritising customers who give their money over supporters who give their heart. Supporter loyalty will see them stick with their team through thick and thin – a lifelong commitment. Whereas customers, will simply move on in the event of poor performance – switching allegiances as they might energy providers, either because their favourite player has switched clubs, or they have decided to follow basketball.

Being a supporter is an emotional attachment, and like all emotions they are prone to volatility. A run of defeats and the sky has fallen in. A couple of wins and the sky’s the limit. And I think I am sensing an outbreak of over stimulated expectations at West Ham at the moment.

If many of us had been asked at the start of the season how the Hammers would be faring come the middle of March, then more would have opted for ‘trading blows with the Albions to avoid relegation’ over ‘battling it out with Manchester United and Chelsea for a place in the top four.’   There cannot be many who don’t feel it has been a season of over-achievement so far. Yet there are mutterings in some quarters that we would be doing even better if only the manager wasn’t so cautious.

The case for the prosecution is that there are times when the manager has shown the opposition too much respect or else he has set the team up solely to protect the point. I’m not convinced that either is the case. Aside form the occasional positional tweak, the setup rarely changes. It is all about compact shape, great organisation, hard work and commitment – with the goal threat coming from rapid counter-attacks or set pieces. When it doesn’t come off it is because the best efforts of the opposition meet the limitations of our squad. West Ham’s strength this season is the result organisation and collective endeavour, not individual brilliance – even though there have been many excellent individual contributions.

The danger is that we may getting ahead of ourselves as to what is possible. Like popping in to your local drive-thru burger joint and demanding a patty made from kobe beef, topped with foie gras and black truffles. Possibly, the cook knows how to prepare it, but there is no chance that he has the correct ingredients. He can only make the best burger he can with what’s available.   

Every system/ formation has its weaknesses.  In ours, although we like to break quickly it is rarely in numbers. If the opposition deny the space and press hard surprise and potency are lost. We are just not geared to maintain possession for lengthy periods. That we don’t keep the ball well enough is a common post-match complaint, but it is systemic rather than individual technical deficiencies. Every good pass needs someone available to receive it, and the more options available the better. They is not yet in our repertoire.

A change to the system might be possible but it would likely expose weaknesses elsewhere. It is not the type of a risk that Moyes would take at this stage of the season, even if there is an argument that a win and a defeat is better than two draws. It really isn’t broken, so no need to fix it.

Tomorrow sees a third meeting of the season with the second team in Manchester, both of which have ended in defeat for the Hammers. The game at the London Stadium was particularly disappointing with West Ham comfortably ahead and on-top until the notorious ‘wind of god’ incident allowed the ball to miraculously return to the pitch from several yards out of play. The resulting goal simultaneously knocked the stuffing out of the home side and provided an unexpected boost to the visitors.

Despite the Red Devils sitting second in the Premier League table, they have only impressed sporadically. They are good rather than exceptional and far from an unbeatable foe. They may have only lost four league games all season, but all four have come at home. They are also experiencing twin pressures of injuries and fixture congestion, having surrendered a late equaliser in their Europa League tie on Thursday evening.  There could be far worse times to be playing them.

The non-availability of Jesse Lingard will require Moyes to do some juggling with his forward players. Possibly with Said Benrahma taking over the Lingard role and one of Jarrod Bowen, Ben Johnson or Ryan Fredericks stepping into the vacant slot, depending on the manager’s preferred formation and how he intends to counter the threat of Fernandes and Rashford (if fit).

Most pundits only mention the Hammers in passing when making their top four predictions. But by this stage of the season it is not impossible, even if it is unlikely, for West Ham to grab one of those places. All of the teams involved have tough matches to face.

As long as the team sticks to what it is good at, they are in with a shout. A win and the table will look very interesting, narrowing the gap between the two clubs to three points with a game in hand for the Hammers. West Ham’s odds have now shortened to 3/1 with some bookies for a top four finish and 4/6 for a top six one. It would be no big surprise not to make top four but I will be a little despondent if we slipped out the top six – even if it will still have been a great season.

Finally, I end the article back on an unashamedly emotional theme, West Ham to win 2-0. COYI!

Soucek Available as Hammers Bid to Reach FA Cup Quarter Final

If you read newspapers or social media to see what happened when we played at Craven Cottage at the weekend then you wouldn’t have found out very much about the actual football played. The conditions were awful, the rain was bucketing down and the pitch was slowly deteriorating as the game went on. It reminded me of our FA Cup tie at Stockport in many respects. We were playing a side that on form we should be dominating but in many aspects we were second best. Fulham actually play some neat football, but unfortunately they are likely to go down this season because of a lack of a cutting edge in the final third. Either team could have won the game with each of our Czech imports missing headed chances whilst at the other end all the Fulham players seemed to lose composure when a half chance appeared.

The major talking point came as a result of a West Ham free kick with seconds to go, when Lee Mason (on VAR duty at Stockley Park) drew Mike Dean’s attention to the fact that Mitrovic was on the floor, looking like he’d been felled by Mike Tyson, and suggested that he should go and view the incident on the screen at the side of the pitch. After reviewing the footage 23 times (that says enough in itself that it wasn’t clear to him!) he then produced a red card. Cue astonishment all round – it was obvious to anyone who understands the game that it was accidental. There has been about 99% agreement everywhere you view or read that the decision was a wrong one, and fortunately the red card was rescinded on Monday. The only real doubt that this would be the outcome was would the panel want to overturn a second decision by (supposedly) one of the top referees in one week? But common sense won the day (sometimes it doesn’t in football) and Soucek is available to play in tonight’s game. The sad thing is that a (top!?) referee should see an incident in a different way to virtually all other observers.

We face a Manchester United side that are having a good season, lying second in the league with a very good chance of retaining a position in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League. Of course we are sixth ourselves, only one point behind Liverpool (in fourth) and should be harbouring ambitions to achieve a top four place too. But with limited attacking options and little investment from the top of the club to remedy this we are very much outsiders in this respect and that’s why I believe tonight’s game takes on added importance. To achieve a top four league finish would require consistency of performance that may be beyond us with our current squad. Excellent though we have been in so many ways this season, our best chance of glory must realistically be to emulate what we achieved in 1964, 1975 and 1980, and that is of course to win the FA Cup.

Yes, a tough fixture tonight, but if we can come out on top then that would put us into the last eight, just one game away from the semi-final, and two wins away from a final appearance at Wembley. Sitting close to the top of the Premier League, with absolutely no chance of going down with 15 games of the season to go is a position we don’t often find ourselves in, but that is where we are. That is why we should be focussing 100% on putting out our best team and trying to win the FA Cup.

As a fan I know that I’d prefer an appearance in the FA Cup final to a sixth or seventh place finish in the Premier League, which is realistically the best we are likely to achieve. Of course our owners may feel differently and prefer the idea of finishing as high as possible in the league, with an extra £2m in prize money for each incremental position achieved. If players need to be rested at any time then I’d prefer this to be for league games whilst we still have an interest in the cup. Of course I’d like to think we could achieve a top 4 finish and a visit to Wembley for the Cup Final, but that may be too much of an optimistic dream. We definitely have a better chance of winning tonight with Soucek available now, and that one piece of news might help to drive us on to achieve a shock result. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world for the team lying sixth to overcome the team in second place, but the bookmakers have decided that it would be. The Red Devils are 8/13 to win the game, whereas we are 21/5, with the draw around 16/5.

The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

MUNWHU1The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

I’m also old enough to remember an even more famous win against them in the semi-final of the cup in 1964, on our way to winning the trophy. We faced them the week before the semi-final in a league game at Upton Park. They beat us 2-0 despite resting most of their first team, including the trio of Best, Law and Charlton, whilst we had our first choice team playing. The following Saturday at Hillsborough we lined up with the same XI whereas they brought back their top guns expecting an easy victory.

That season Manchester United finished second in the league whereas we were a lowly 14th. But that didn’t stop us progressing to Wembley comfortably in that one-off game with two goals from Ronnie Boyce (seen being chased by fellow team members after scoring one of the goals in the semi-final) and another from Geoff Hurst. Boyce only scored 29 goals in 341 appearances for us but he knew about scoring important ones, as he also headed the winning goal in the final minute of the Final when we defeated Preston 3-2.

My prediction for tonight (optimistic hat on as usual) is for the game to end 1-1 after 90 minutes, 2-2 after extra time, and then for us to win 4-3 on penalties (despite our lack of penalty practice this season!). What are the chances?