The Top Four Beckons Again: West Ham To Extend New Year Winning Ways By Clipping Canary’s Wings

Games don’t come much easier than this on paper. But Hammers must avoid complacency to see off the challenge of struggling Norwich on the London Stadium pitch.

It is odd that West Ham have been selected as one of only a handful of clubs to play a re-arranged fixture in the immediate aftermath of the FA Cup weekend. Not sure who has the final say in agreeing to these revised schedules but I can’t believe that David Moyes will be too chuffed that the game against Norwich has been shoehorned in between two testing Leeds fixtures. After all, this was our only cancelled match while others have three or four yet to fit in. Moyes will be fuming rather than buzzing, as the headlines like to say.

That said, a win today would put us right back into the top four, albeit having played extra games over rivals: Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United. The bookmaker’s have the Hammers as clear outsiders from that group for finishing top four at the end of the season. That is no surprise, and it is probably no bad thing to fly just below the radar. The final placings may well be heavily influenced by what each club does in the remaining days of the transfer window. While I would back our ‘best’ eleven against those of the competition, our reserve depth is the weakest by some distance.

Hopes for early additions to the squad have been well and truly managed during the early days of January. Only Newcastle have been willing to spend recklessly and indiscriminately so far. That doesn’t stop the rumours coming thick and fast, though, as we have been linked with a host of new players.

We have all become transfer news clickaholics to some degree. We know we shouldn’t do it, but surely having one last look at the latest link won’t hurt, will it? As long as it is treated as entertainment, you are on safe ground. It really is pointless having a meltdown at the club about a transfer target that has been made-up by some bloke on the internet.  That way madness lies!

We just need to put our trust in those in charge. To believe that the bid-preparation team at the London Stadium are working overtime. The manager’s wish-list by their side and the keys to the transfer war-chest hanging on the hook by the door. In the coming days, swoops will be made, cash will be splashed and resolve will be tested. Targets will be prised away as wantaway strikers are snapped up with long-term deals penned before they are torpedoed by other clubs.

It has been the ritual of transfer windows since ancient times. As Shakespeare wrote in his short unpublished play, West Hamlet, “thee hamm’rs might not but maketh a raid f’r that gent who hast issu’d a cometh and getteth me plea, lest thine mast’rstroke be scupp’r’d by the hotspur

On paper, at home to Norwich has to be the easiest game on the entire fixture list, although nothing can be taken for granted. Prior to their weekend FA Cup win at Charlton the Canaries had lost five consecutive league games, conceding fourteen and scoring none in the process. Their last point was a 1-1 draw with ten-man Newcastle at the beginning of December.

The change of manager from Daniel Farke to Dean Smith has made little difference to results. A desire to play enterprising football without being prepared to invest in the squad is a hopeless rinse and repeat strategy. It is very difficult to see them escaping relegation this year even if one from themselves, Newcastle, Burnley, and Watford will ultimately survive. It would be no surprise, though, if they yo-yoed back up again for the 2023/24 season.

As is normal these days, final team selection is left to the mercy of positive Covid tests. West Ham will again be without injured defenders Angelo Ogbonna, Kurt Zouma and Aaron Creswell, although the latter two are reportedly on the cusp of a return. Said Benrahma is also missing in action at AFCON having come on as an 83rd minute substitute, and missed a ‘golden opportunity’, in Algeria’s scoreless draw with Sierra Leone yesterday. However, Vladimir Coufal may well be available again, as is Pablo Fornals.

I’ve a feeling Moyes will stick with Nikola Vlasic rather than recall Fornals. Vlasic has started to show some decent touches lately and looks to have developed a good understanding with Manuel Lanzini. Could there finally be a league start for Alphonse Areola? He deserves a chance even if Lukas Fabianski has done little wrong. Areola does look to command his box better. I doubt Moyes will go for it, though, and my predicted line-up: Fabianski, Coufal, Dawson, Diop, Johnson, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Lanzini, Vlasic, Antonio.

Norwich have a number of injury and sickness concerns including highly rated Chelsea loanee, Billy Gilmour and the out if favour, Todd Cantwell – Cantwell looked to be a real prospect on Norwich’s previous foray in the top flight but his start has faded and is now angling for a move elsewhere.

West Ham completed the double over Norwich in the 2019/20 season and the same should be expected this time around. Complacency is the biggest danger. Moyes must ensure the team are well prepared and do not make one of their occasional sluggish starts. All being well, I foresee a comfortable 3-0 win. COYI!  

The Thriller At The Villa. Hammers Looking To Extend Amazing Awayday Advantage

Unbeaten on the road for over six months, the West Ham tour bus rocks up in Birmingham to face a faltering Aston Villa

The two big domestic transfer stories during the summer were the prospective moves of Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish to the money-no-object ranks of Premier League champions, Manchester City. As we know, only one of these transfers came about when the Kane move was blocked when the selling club’s Chairman failed to honour an alleged gentleman’s agreement.

In a week where West Ham encountered each of the three clubs involved in those sagas it is interesting to reflect on how they worked out for all concerned.

Peak schadenfreude has almost been reached from the dramas currently playing out in N17. Getting one over on the old rivals, as we did last week, is always sweet, and to see it followed up with another pitiful performance yesterday has been spectacular. From self-styled European Super League heavyweights to crisis Premier League makeweights in the blink of an eye. Riddled with debt, saddled with an unsuitably dull manager and a group of players who look like they would rather be anywhere else, the situation is priceless. If Daniel Levy thought he had a gentleman’s agreement requiring Harry Kane to ‘give a toss’ during the remainder of his enforced stay, he now knows he was very much mistaken. Kane’s work-to-rule is a reminder that it is the players who now have the upper hand.

Few would be surprised to see Kane heading up north to the Etihad once the new year sales start. It is quite remarkable that despite the richness of their resources, Manchester City have even fewer strikers than West Ham. The Hammers gave an excellent defensive performance in midweek to finally put an end the visitor’s League Cup domination. But City do appear a lot less threatening at the moment, even if you know they will dominate the ball for long periods. For all Guardiola’s presumed tactical genius, his players recruitment has been very hit and miss. Hopefully, none of that is down to Rob Newman.

Ultimately, league cup success came down to a tense penalty shootout with Phil Foden wayward attempt being the sole failure. Does anyone look more like a ‘Manc’ than Foden? If he fails to get over his spot kick miss, there is a role in the remake of the Royle Family waiting. Huge congratulations to all the West Ham penalty takers for holding their nerve in the shootout. A quarter final tie at Tottenham now awaits.

The one who, of course, got away in the summer was the big money transfer of Grealish to Manchester City. Not sure he has yet provided value at City but as Villa’s talisman and overwhelming creative force, he has been a tough act to follow. The cash was quickly used to bring in three big money signings – Danny Ings, Leon Bailey, and Emiliano Buendia – but attempts to shoehorn them into an effective formation has so far proved to be a struggle. The Ings/ Watkins partnership looks formidable on paper but has yet to take off. Hopefully, it will remain grounded again today.

Things have rarely been better at West Ham. To the extent that I worry they may be going too well. Has David Moyes sold his soul to the devil in return for seven wishes. Will it all fall apart when the wishes run out?

It is an unfamiliar feeling approaching any game with a high degree of positivity – an expectation that West Ham might win rather than a forlorn hope that they won’t lose. I’m not sure that my anxiety levels have reduced come kick-off, however. Though they are anxieties about losing touch with the leading pack rather than getting sucked into a relegation battle. A win today and it will be halfway to the forty point minimum from just ten games.

Success breeds confidence but it can also lead to complacency. The manager’s balanced public persona provides some reassurance. Happy to praise the performance while looking for certain aspects of our game to improve. The return of the set piece threat is very welcome, but more goals are also needed from open play.

There will be no surprises in the starting eleven today with the team pretty much picking itself. Right back may be the only area of contention assuming both Valdimir Coufal and Ben Johnson are available to play. Johnson would be very unlucky if he has to settle for a place on the bench after recent performances. But competition for places is great!

Central attacking midfield is still the problem position for me. Both Pablo Fornals and Said Benrahma have done their best work when playing out wide and struggle to impose themselves enough in the central role behind Michail Antonio. Nikola Vlasic may be better suited to that position but needs to be fitter and faster (in both body and mind) before being considered a realistic starter.  

The other major development during the week has been the apparent interest in buying a stake in the club by Czech businessman and billionaire (and Sparta Prague President), Daniel Kretinsky. New investment rather than new ownership is more in line with David Sullivan’s immediate objectives and is more credible than an outright sale. How it might work in practice depends very much on the personalities of those involved and how they would get along. Do they have a shared love of Cossack hats? At face value, the deal is more appealing than being owned by a despotic overseas state. The Hammers go into today’s game in high spirits, having won four consecutive games in all competitions, as well as being unbeaten on the road this season. In contrasting fortunes, Villa have lost three on the trot since their win at Old Trafford at the end of September. Dean Smith is something of a gung-ho manager, hoping to outscore the opposition to compensate for weaknesses in defence. With Ings and Watkins they have the potential to do that but are currently lacking the creativity in midfield. Their open style of play should play to the Hammers counter-attacking strengths, as witnessed in last season’s 3-1 win. I’m hoping for a repeat score-line today. COYI!