West Ham Season Opener Revisited: You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next

This week’s preview is brought to you by HammerCalm, the official stress relief medicine of West Ham United. Take one tablet after the third Hammer’s goal and the proven slow-release formulation promotes a sense of calm and relaxation until the seventh minute of added time.

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!

Seven Cup Finals for West Ham to Achieve the Magnificent Dream

In a week when the nation’s high streets emerged from hibernation and Covid restrictions began to ease the Premier League shunned the old normality with the “new normal” of West Ham moving into the top four. And although we were close to that position when he joined us, and so many of our players have stepped up to the plate in this campaign, Jesse Lingard’s contribution has been a major factor in firing us into contention for a potential place in next season’s Champions League.

It is hard to remember a footballer make such a positive impression upon joining West Ham. When Jesse Lingard arrived in the winter transfer window there were many doubters among Hammers fans. Just as there were when Craig Dawson was signed, too. But I guess that is par for the course with many of the East End faithful.

Following last weekend’s win over Leicester I saw a “league table” of Premier League footballers with the most league goals and assists since February 1st and we all know who was at the top. With eight goals and three assists in nine games since joining on loan from Manchester United, Jesse has outshone all others being directly involved in eleven goals. It was also interesting to see Michail Antonio sixth in the table with two goals and four assists, and he hasn’t played that many games!

The Jesse Lingard show was in force against Leicester when a game that was a bit of a stalemate at the time was suddenly brought to life when he bent home a first-time half volley from Coufal’s cutback after half an hour. It was a strange shot (I think he said that he shinned it) and I did a double take when I saw it nestling in Schmeichel’s net. A few minutes later Jarrod Bowen beat the offside trap to race on to a long ball from Diop and then square it to Lingard to put it into an empty net.

2-0 at half-time, and then three shortly after the break when Lingard found Soucek who calmly passed to Bowen who controlled the ball with one touch and calmly finished it with the other. After the previous two games Hammers fans were used to 3-0 leads but we wanted more remembering what happened in those. Diop headed a fourth from a Lingard cross but VAR spotted he was narrowly offside.

Those supporters of a nervy disposition or with high blood pressure could have done without the drama that followed as the game began to resemble the last two matches with three-goal leads, especially the panic stations when the Foxes’ second goal went in at the start of the six minutes Mike Dean decided to add on at the end of the ninety. But just like the Wolves game we held on for a 3-2 victory that put us back into fourth place with just seven games remaining. Perhaps the reopening of pubs will be welcomed by many fans as the final stages of recent games may drive us to drink! How many of us would have believed that after 31 games we would be sitting in the top four with it in our own hands to remain there?

For the 27th time in those 31 games our opponents had more possession than we did, and Leicester completed more than twice as many passes. This just goes to show that the ball retention statistics that regularly appear on our TV screens during games should not be given the importance that so much of the media gives to it. But having said that there is one area where we can improve, and that is not giving the ball away too easily as we sometimes do.

Five of the seven remaining games are against teams in the lower reaches of the table (Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton and West Brom away) with the toughest games (on paper) in between them at home to Chelsea and Everton, before a final fixture at home to Southampton.

Considering the lack of depth in the squad and the mounting injuries it is amazing that we are still in this position so close to the season’s end. However there is hope that some of our injured players will be back soon, even in time for tomorrow’s game. Mark Noble has described our remaining fixtures as seven cup finals. What a shame that we can’t have 60,000 fans there for those three matches still to be played at the London Stadium.

Looking at those remaining fixtures in terms of degree of difficulty based on average league table positions, Liverpool and ourselves would appear to have easier run-ins than Chelsea, Tottenham, Leicester and Everton. Brighton gave us a helping hand by drawing 0-0 with Everton on Monday evening. I watched the second half of the game and the Seagulls largely outplayed the Toffeemen without being clinical in front of goal.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that playing lowly teams is an advantage, so we can’t get too excited in anticipation of the games to come, as teams fighting for their lives at the foot of the table are often tougher opponents than those sitting comfortably with not much to play for, or those with other goals in mind such as the FA Cup or European competitions.

Our away games might seem very winnable but could be more difficult than we may think. We’ve only won twice in 16 visits to St James Park in the 21st Century. We have a better record against Burnley but have lost tamely on our last two visits to Turf Moor. Brighton have been a bogey team in recent years, and we’ve won just four of our last dozen visits to the Hawthorns.

Last weekend’s comeback win against Burnley was an important one for Newcastle but they are not yet out of the woods in the fight to avoid the drop. We could well come up against similar fighting opponents in our other three away games against teams in lowly positions but with a lot to play for. It is often better to have fixtures against teams who would already appear to be on the beach. Roy Hodgson was critical of Roy Keane for suggesting Palace did not appear to be fully committed with their players “in their armchairs” when they faced Chelsea last weekend, but to my eyes, Palace were rolled over with ease. Did you see Zaha in that game, remonstrating with just about everybody including his own teammates?

A final finishing position of fourth is in our own hands, nor is third out of the question with the win over Leicester taking us to within one point of their total. But whatever happens it has been a great season, definitely one of the best in recent times.

Three points against Newcastle would edge us closer to a top four finish. We’ll all be keeping an eye on the Everton v Tottenham game taking place this evening. A draw would probably be the best result for us in this one. Of course, Chelsea and Leicester are involved in FA Cup action on Sunday so a win today would elevate us into third place and heap more pressure on those two semi-finalists in their games in hand. Leicester’s next league game is at home to a resurgent West Brom next Thursday, whilst Chelsea face Brighton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday before they visit the London Stadium the following Saturday.We don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four. All we can do is try to win the next seven games. Seven cup finals as we aim for seventh heaven. We are sixth favourites to finish in the top four with the bookmakers. They think we’ll end up below Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester as well as the two Manchester clubs. But we are strongly fancied (5/1 on) to finish in the top six. After last season’s relegation struggle that would be a magnificent achievement, surely? I’m hoping for even better though. What are the chances?