The Road (To Europe) Is Long, With A Many A Winding Turn ….

That Leeds us to who knows where, who knows where. Are we strong, strong enough to carry it off? He ain’t Revie, he’s Bielsa!

In a season notable for its fixture congestion, it is something of a luxury to go a whole nine days without a game. In bygone days it would have been enough for Fat Sam to whisk the squad off for a warm weather jolly to Dubai, but the more pragmatic David Moyes will have wanted to put the break to better use. Recharging the batteries and retuning the engine for what could well be an interesting climax to an unusual campaign.

Since West Ham were squeezed out by Manchester City, despite a spirited and admirable display that was worthy of a point, the majority of Premier League clubs have played three times, resulting in the Hammers slipping from 4th to 7th in the standings. For a while it looked like other results were being kind to us, but recent wins for Manchester United, Leicester, Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham have seen them putting points on the board at our expense. As an anxious supporter, I sense this may have posed a degree of added pressure to tonight’s performance, but hopefully the dressing room has an in-built immunity to such transient concerns.

With one or two games in hand over those above us (apart from Everton) the competition for a top six place remains open and up for grabs. There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns before the fat lady sings come the end of May. There are also an intriguing number of head-to-head games still to come between the interested parties – starting with Chelsea vs Everton, scheduled to end in a 1-0 home win immediately before our game kicks-off tonight. More gushing acclaim for Tuchel, the latest football media darling.

Where will it lead to, who knows where? My best guess is that a further twenty-one points would be the minimum requirement for West Ham to be in with a shout of a top four finish, it would certainly secure top six. Seven wins or six wins and three draws should do the trick. Not easy but, equally, not impossible.

How well other teams perform and avoiding injuries will also be contributing factors to the Hammer’s fate. We should all switch allegiances for European matches and hope that Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Liverpool continue to stay involved and distracted for as long as possible.

Despite Leicester’s win at the weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me if they fell away given their spate of injuries and I’m still to be fully convinced by Everton. That the Hammers remain ‘part of the conversation’ (as they say these days) is nothing short of remarkable and more than I could have hoped for back in September. Who might have believed that games away at Manchester United and home to Chelsea, Leicester and Everton would be pivotal in determining European qualification rather than to avoiding relegation.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First the Hammers have to negotiate the challenge from Premier League mavericks, Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa has become something of a marmite manager among supporters – tactical genius or eccentric oddball? Whatever your opinion he has steered his side to a comfortable mid-table position in their first season back at the top, and provided plenty of entertainment along the way. They are as unpredictable as the Hammer’s sides I remember watching in the 1960s. A far cry from Revie’s Leeds of the same era. It will be interesting to see how they develop next season.

West Ham will be looking for only their second double of the season in tonight’s game. In the reverse fixture at Elland Road, Leeds attacking play was largely impotent, despite taking an early lead, and they are likely to provide a far stiffer test this time around.   

A huge difference compared with more recent seasons is the Hammer’s impressive home form, which is currently third best in the league. A win tonight would put them back into second place, above Tottenham, but still a long way behind Manchester City. A shame that it has had to be achieved in an empty stadium. Having supporters back inside for the final game on May 23 to secure a Champion’s League spot is a beguiling dream to hang on to.

The major injury concern over the past week has been the fitness of Lukasz Fabianski. His welfare is my concern. My fingers are doubly crossed for a safe return between the posts for today’s game, particularly with Darren Randolph also nursing an injury. Although Randolph is a decent enough shot stopper, he has always looked suspect in the air – evidenced, in my opinion, by his failure to claim De Bruyne’s cross that led to Manchester City’s opener the previous weekend.

Moyes has made a habit of springing the odd curve ball in recent team selections and formations. I think it will be a return to a back four tonigh with Jarrod Bowen returning in place of Ben Johnson – but perhaps the manager has other plans. 

It may be a tired pundit’s cliché but there is truth in the axiom that there are no easy games in the Premier League. Not in the sense that you can ever take it anything for granted. Leeds do not provide the compact, massed defence that has so often derailed West Ham in the past but there all action possession based style will present a very different challenge. There will be opportunity for the pace of Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard to exploit on the break but the whole team must do their bit in matching the visitor’s energy. It is reassuring that we have come to expect a positive and determined team spirit throughout the side, as well as performances above and beyond the call of duty from the likes of Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal and Craig Dawson.

For a side without a prolific goal-scorer, West Ham have a reasonable return in converting chances – but they do have an inferior goal difference to most of those above us. While it’s great to see the goals shared around, the absence of a 15 – 20 goals a year striker is an obvious vulnerability. The beauty of a natural scorer is in turning a draw into a victory and in turning the screw when you are on top, converting a 2-1 score-line into 4-1. Maybe next season, eh?

Win or draw and West Ham will be back in the top six at the end of the day. A win will see us back in fifth and should Everton manage a draw at Chelsea then it will be a good night’s work all round, with everything set up nicely for the following weekend. West Ham to win 3-1.  

Can West Ham complete the league double over Leeds for the first time in 67 years?

Arriving back from my three miles Sunday morning walk in the late winter sunshine I sat down to watch some football. West Brom v Newcastle wasn’t the most exciting prospect in advance of the game but I sat through most of it, although I was increasingly distracted by the Sunday newspapers. If there has been a more boring game of football in the Premier League this season I missed it. Here I witnessed two teams play out a game of football that was almost totally bereft of any quality. Two teams that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Championship next season if this was anything to go by. If only we could be facing Newcastle now instead of in the first game of the season.

After lunch, I was about to begin to write this article when I thought I would catch the first few minutes of the Liverpool v Fulham game. I stayed for the whole of the first half to witness an energetic and inventive Fulham side totally outplay a seemingly dispirited Liverpool team and take an interval lead with a late goal. On the evidence of that half I can easily see Fulham escape the drop that seemed inevitable just a few weeks ago. As we saw when we visited Craven Cottage recently they are a good footballing side that just lacked something in the final third. On the other hand Liverpool, after a 68 game unbeaten run at Anfield had lost five home games on the trot and this was looking as it could have been the sixth. It was hard to recognise them as the team that had played so well at the London Stadium a few weeks ago, and highlighted again to me the unnecessary (too much) respect that we gave to them in that game.

In this season of matches that just keep coming relentlessly, it seems a long time ago now that we put up such an excellent performance against the champions elect Manchester City. City are really streets ahead of all the other teams in the Premier League (and possibly Europe – we shall see), but we became another victim of their long winning run, despite matching them for shots and shots on target. We could have even ended that sequence of wins with the final move of the game which ended with Diop heading wide. City have such a depth of quality players in almost every position it would not surprise me to see them win every competition they are in this season.

While we have had this comparatively inactive period, the other teams around us hoping for a finish in a European qualifying place in the league have played, sometimes more than once, and the results have not been particularly good from our point of view. Wins for Everton, Chelsea, Leicester and Tottenham have pushed us down the table without us playing, and now we are the ones with the games in hand over most of them. So many of those wins could easily have been draws, but as often appears to be the case, luck, refereeing decisions and VAR reviews seem to favour top teams in so many games.

Tonight we face Leeds, who must be relatively pleased with their season so far, after their return to the top flight after so many years out of it. They sit comfortably in mid-table with 35 points from their 26 games, unlike the other promoted teams (Fulham and West Brom) who are involved in the relegation scrap at the bottom.

The statistics for their season so far indicate a poor side from a defensive viewpoint, with only West Brom (56), and Sheffield United (45) having conceded more league goals than Leeds (44). They have lost half (13) of their games too, with only Sheffield United (22), West Brom (16), and Newcastle (14) having lost more.

Conversely they have won 11 games, which is more than the teams below them in the league, and they are ranked fifth in goals scored (44), with only City (56), Man United (53), Leicester (48) and Liverpool (47) having found the opposition net more. The above statistics point to their dearth of draws (just 2 in their 26 games), which include no draws at all away from home, a league low unmatched by the rest of the teams. Does this mean that this game will not end in a draw, or perhaps a draw is due for them?

The game at Anfield is now over and Fulham have won the game to ensure that Brighton and Newcastle will be looking anxiously over their shoulders. The usual punditry is underway with analysis of Liverpool’s vertical decline taking precedence over the credit that should be given to Fulham for their excellent victory borne out of splendid organisation. But we get used to that. Who would have thought that with just a dozen games of the season to go we would be two points ahead of Liverpool with two games in hand?  

Looking at our head to head record against Leeds it doesn’t make for very good reading. In the last 38 years we have faced them 29 times, and only beaten them on three occasions, of which only one was at home when we won 3-0 in March 1998 (that’s 23 years ago now) with goals from Hartson, Abou and Ian Pearce. We won at Elland Road a couple of seasons later when Nigel Winterburn scored the only goal of the game. Of course in December we won at Elland Road after conceding an early penalty, when Soucek and Ogbonna scored our goals in a 2-1 win.

The last time we completed a league double over them was on the day after I was born (I am now 67!) when we beat them 5-2 at Upton Park, after winning at Elland Road earlier that season. We were both Division Two sides at the time. The last time we did a double over them in the top division goes back over 90 years. So it would be the first time for many years if we win the game this evening.

But purely based on current form we are strong favourites to win the game. Only Manchester City have collected more league points in this calendar year than we have, and we have won four of our last five home league games. Leeds on the other hand have lost three of their last four league games, and have an abysmal record in London, losing all four games in the capital this season.

But in their 13 away league games they have scored in 11 of them. In fact they have found the net 24 times away from home but conceded 27, winning six times and losing seven. The 87 goals scored in Leeds 26 games this season suggests that a goalless draw is highly unlikely, with five goals or more coming in almost a third of their matches.

Despite current form pointers suggesting a home win we are not as strong favourites with the bookmakers as you might have thought. Odds of around 21/20 for a West Ham victory look inviting, as does a West Ham win with both teams to score at 5/2. As is often the case with the bookies the favourite correct score is 1-1 despite Leeds not having drawn an away game this season, but I quite fancy 2-1 to repeat the Elland Road win (15/2) or even 3-1 (14/1). What are the chances?

 P.S. Writers Curse – of course, after extolling the virtues of Manchester City, their long winning and unbeaten runs came to an unexpected end when their nearest neighbours beat them. Just a blip I reckon that will spur them on for the rest of the season.