Do you remember, the 12th night of September? West Ham had just crumbled to defeat in the opening game of the 2020/21 season to Newcastle United. The omens were grim. A dispirited Hammers, lacking pace and positional sense, reeling from the controversial sale of Grady Diagana, had been easily beaten 2-0 by a visiting side considered to have recruited wisely during the transfer window. The obvious flaws in the West Ham defence had not been addressed and a season of relegation struggle and disharmony was widely predicted.
Who but a fool would have guessed, back then, that when we reached the final seven matches of the season, West Ham would be challenging for a Champion’s League place with Newcastle on the periphery of the relegation scramble?
West Ham’s transformation has been astonishing, regardless of what happens in the remaining games. The defence was eventually patched by the addition of the inspirational Vladimir Coufal and the resolute Craig Dawson, but it was done at very little expense. Where biggish money was pledged, for the creative probings of Said Benrahma, this has yet to pay the expected dividends. Otherwise the team is largely unchanged – in personnel, if not in performances. There have been many notable contributions to the team’s success (Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Angelo Ogbonna to name but a few) but it has been the arrival of Jesse Lingard that has sparked the final assault on the top four.
At the end of January when victory at Crystal Palace first saw West Ham break into the top four, the pundits warned that a difficult run-in would bring them back down to earth. Most of those tough fixtures (at least on paper) are now behind us and still we sit with an opportunity to end the weekend not only in the top four, but in third place. No doubt there is still time for the wheels to fall off, but what delight to be in with a shout.
After last night’s draw between Everton and Tottenham, the race for the remaining two Champion’s League’s places is realistically down to Leicester, West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool. The assorted bookmakers, sporting indices and pundits continue (not unsurprisingly) to see the Hammers as firm outsiders. I’m sure many West Ham fans feel the same wrestling between their privately held hopes and their publicly voiced expectations. At least the top four race provides an element of intrigue to a season that is in danger of fizzling out long before the end.
Next up in the West Ham run of weekly cup finals is a visit to St James’ Park for the return fixture with Newcastle. The Hammers achieved a league double over the Geordies in the 2018/19 season but, so far, have yet to taste victory over a Steve Bruce Toon, including a Premier League Asia Trophy third place play-off in Shanghai. The most recent visit ended in a 2-2 stalemate in July 2020 with West Ham twice surrendering the lead.
Newcastle supporters will be disappointed by their season season and, although they are not mathematically clear of relegation, they opened up a useful gap over the bottom three with a comeback win at Burnley last weekend. The game itself was a largely mediocre affair but the return from injury of Wilson and Saint-Maximin has provided a major and timely boost. The introduction of Saint-Maximin effectively changed the game and with Wilson always enjoying his games against the Hammers, the home side will be cautiously optimistic.
David Moyes has played his injury cards close to his chest making it impossible to predict the available permutations in the away side’s starting eleven. We know that Rice and Michail Antonio will again be missing but reliable news on Ogbonna’s fitness, and the extent of Aaron Cresswell’s and Mark Noble’s injuries are difficult to ascertain. My instinct is that Moyes will only be making enforced changes from the team that started last week. The most difficult gap to fill would be the absence of Noble. At least there are options elsewhere but unless the manager suddenly decides to put faith in Conor Coventry there is no backup as a partner to Soucek in the defensive midfield anchor.
A further unexpected feature of the West Ham season has been an unusually low profile from the boardroom. Not like them to be bashful in the light of unforeseen success on the pitch. Should the exceptional run continue to the end of the season then you can be sure they will be milking it for all it is worth – as the planned commemorative issue of the Sunday Sport recently leaked by a club insider reveals. No doubt they would see a place in the Champion’s League as reward for their efforts, not something achieved despite them.
It is going to be another tough match at St James Park today. Newcastle have lost just one of their last six and will have momentum from last week’s success. Hopefully, the West Ham mentality really is to take each game one at a time but it would be understandable if the pressure of expectation starts to creep in. A win and third place would be amazing and set things up nicely for the clash with Chelsea next weekend. If we do get ahead I’m looking for a better stab at game management than we have seen in recent weeks. The nerves can’t take much more of trying to throw away three goal leads – and there are no fingernails left to chew. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!