A Long Good Friday To Die Hard: West Ham Look To Triumph Over Watford In Stressful Stratford Showdown

Can wise cracking, no-nonsense Scot’s boss David Moyes create the decisive never-say-die spirit in his team that will defeat Watford and lead West Ham to Premier League safety? Yippee Ki-Yay!

In all good movies (and even in most bad ones) the action unfolds to a three act pattern: the setup; the confrontation and the resolution. West Ham’s season has kept faithfully to the plot so far. A benign, almost encouraging, opening that bred a confident swagger until it was rudely interrupted by a defining and crushing defeat to Oxford United in the EFL Cup. This was the turning point in our plot, after which, fortunes went rapidly from bad to worse to atrocious. The great pretenders were exposed as the kings with no clothes. Today we find ourselves perfectly set up for the final act – the first of two potential climactic moments that will determine the immediate future of West Ham as a Premier League club.

West Ham remain outsiders among the four clubs competing for the two available relegation places, but there are no foregone conclusions at a time when an unexpected result can crop up at any time. Principle antagonists, Villa and Bournemouth, might look down and out, but what if they are only stunned and awaiting the opportunity to pick themselves up and strike back.   Whereas three points today would see us walking off into the sunset of Premier League survival, anything less could still lead to a last day nail-biting, nerve jangling finale – great for the ratings but not for my sanity.

In a perfect act of symmetry, the season’s fixtures against Watford were scheduled as the third from the start and the third from the end. The deserved win at 3-1 Vicarage, with two goals from Sebastien Haller, set West Ham off on a mini sequence of games that briefly saw them flirt with the top three. The optimistic wisdom at the time being that a phenomenal potency in attack might be able to compensate for unresolved inadequacies in defence. Although there is some veracity in that train of thought (only the three bottom clubs have conceded more goals than the Hammers while ten EPL clubs have scored fewer) the differential has not been great enough to accumulate sufficient points – just enough to earn a better goal difference than our relegation rivals.

The only time this season that the Hammers have won back-to-back league matches were successive victories over Watford and Norwich at the end of August. Having easily dispatched a ragged Norwich on Saturday can history joyfully repeat itself against Watford, just when it is needed the most?

There will be a temptation for David Moyes to keep the same Carrow Road starting eleven, but we need to consider just how poor the Canaries were.  It was a convincing impression of a West Ham tribute act from those afternoons of surrender that we have witnessed far too often in the past against the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. Their lack of fight and spirit was staggering, something that is unlikely to be repeated by the Hornets in this evening’s game. The question for me is whether Mark Noble, so influential in his contribution at Norwich, has the speed of thought or action to compete in what will be a busy and frenetic midfield battlefield of high tempo pressing and closing down. This would not be a time for dwelling on the ball, engaging reverse or taking multiple touches to nowhere.

If not Noble, though, is there anyone capable of performing a better job in directing operations in the attacking third? A case might be made for either Jack Wilshere or Manuel Lanzini, but neither has shrugged off long term injuries and returned to their former selves. I would prefer to see Pablo Fornals in a more central role, but he is needed wide left to provide much needed backup to Aaron Cresswell, a service that Andriy Yarmolenko is unable provide.

No solution is perfect, and the number 10 role has become a major weakness in the current setup. The Hammers will once again need to look for big performances as an attacking force from Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen. It is a given that the solid foundation provided in front of the back four by Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will also be pivotal. Rice has been a season long star performer but the addition of Soucek both defensively, and as an unexpected item in the penalty area, has been a refreshing upgrade on what went before.

Watford have a very good squad on paper but, like our own, it has not been translated into performances on the pitch. They do, however, come into the game off the back of successive wins against Norwich and Newcastle. Gerard Deulofeu usually impresses against us but will be missing while Danny Welbeck (another West Ham bogey figure) has now recovered from injury. The greatest threat that I see is from the pace of Ismaïla Sarr down the right wing. Cresswell will be left floundering and will need all the support that he can get in cutting off the supply to the wounded Troy Dee-knee.

Martin Atkinson is today’s referee while Stuart Attwell is his invisible virtual assistant. There is not really much time left this season for all those wrong VAR calls to even themselves out for West Ham. Perhaps we will be the beneficiaries of half a dozen penalty awards tonight.

Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are in full alignment this week, both opting for a 2-1 West Ham victory. That would do nicely for me. In theory, you might expect this to be a nervy, error prone affair, but that might be tempered in an empty stadium where anxiety cannot easily be transmitted from fans to players. The outcome, though, will be as much about attitude, desire, character and strength of mind as it will technical football ability. Will our boys be up to the task?

It is games like these when you start to question where is the enjoyment in watching football. It needs at least a three goal cushion with less than five minutes remaining before I can feel relaxed. If we go a goal down, the cat will know to keep a safe distance. I really don’t want to have to go into the final round of games needing to get a result against Aston Villa. Accordingly, I am going to line up alongside the pundits and predict a 2-1 home win, in the hope that a concentrated force of positive thinking will ensure it actually happens. It could be a very long Friday night – but will it be a good one?  Yippee Ki-Yay!

Can West Ham confirm Premier League football when Watford visit the London Stadium in a relegation six-pointer?

I was keeping an eye on the score in the Bournemouth v Leicester game the other evening on my phone. I saw that Leicester had taken a 1-0 lead and then I started to view the game on TV early in the second half to hear the commentator confirming that Leicester were cruising and that Bournemouth were devoid of ideas. Shortly after I began to watch Leicester had a goal kick. And from that moment when Schmeichel fluffed the kick I witnessed one of the greatest implosions from a football team that I have seen for a very long time. And to think that the side from the lockdown city were supposedly trying to cement a place in the Champions League next season! Their performance in that final half an hour or so was woeful. The Bournemouth victory gave them confidence for their visit to the Etihad on Wednesday, where although they were outplayed, they could easily have gained another point in their desperate fight for survival. With two games to go they will probably need to win both of them to stand any chance of staying up. But they do still have an outside chance, and their odds to be relegated eased from 1/16 to 1/12.

Earlier that day I wasn’t at all surprised that Villa picked up their first three point haul for some time by disposing of a Crystal Palace team that already seem to be on the beach. By losing the game, Palace joined Norwich as the only side to fail to pick up a single point in the last five games. I wish that we had them to play in one of our final fixtures. Villa played away at Goodison Park on Thursday evening. What a boring game of football that was that highlighted both teams weaknesses in front of goal. 24 shots between them, and only one on target each. Fortunately Everton’s late equaliser denied Villa a victory.

Both West Ham and Watford will be thankful for their victories last Saturday, which meant that the four teams realistically involved in the relegation scramble (of course Brighton are not yet mathematically safe) collected 12 points between them in the round of matches scoring 12 goals and conceding just 2. While Antonio became the first West Ham player since David Cross many years ago to score four goals in an away fixture, Watford came from behind to beat Newcastle with two penalties.

That sets it up nicely for the relegation “six-pointer” this evening. It is hard really to assess our form and you can only beat what you are up against, but to be fair Norwich were awful. We played pretty well and could have had an even more emphatic victory with more care. It was good to see Mark Noble proving what I have always believed and written about in previous articles. He is still a very good player against the lesser sides. Whilst the pace of the top teams highlights his lack of speed, he can still play an important role when we are facing sides outside the top eight or so. If selected he will be making his 500th appearance for the club, which is really quite a milestone in the modern game. He has also scored three goals in his last two appearances against tonight’s visitors.

A win for either team tonight will mean that the winning team are virtually safe barring a remarkable turnaround in the goal difference situation, and a draw may not be a bad result for both teams. Sky TV would love to be able to show a last day showdown between ourselves and Villa, but hopefully that will not happen.

Apparently we have no fresh injury concerns after the Norwich game, and both Anderson and Snodgrass have returned to training giving even more strength to the bench, not that it is usual for our manager to utilise as many substitutes as he is allowed. I fully expect him to go ahead with the same starting eleven that began the Norwich game, and if he does it will probably be the first time this season where I have correctly predicted the team! But we shall see.

We are favourites to win the game with the bookmakers, but the draw at 2/1 is as low as odds usually go for a drawn match, with many expecting that to be the convenient outcome for both sides. The correct score market has a 1-1 draw as strong favourite at 9/2. Will 35 points be enough to ensure that both teams will be playing Premier League football next season? If the game does end level then Bournemouth and Villa will need to win both of their last two games to survive to overtake ourselves and Watford if neither of the teams playing tonight fail to pick another point. A win and a draw wouldn’t be good enough as it would only take them up to 35 points, which wouldn’t be enough without a significant win to boost their goal difference. The Hornets would be the most vulnerable with an inferior goal difference to ourselves.

After tonight there will be just two games left for each of the teams still involved. Villa have a home game against a seemingly improving Arsenal side before visiting the London Stadium on the final day. Bournemouth face Southampton at home in a South Coast derby before visiting Goodison Park on the final day. Watford have two tough fixtures at home to Manchester City and then away at Arsenal. We visit Old Trafford for our penultimate game before facing Villa to conclude the longest season in history.

A win tonight will almost certainly be enough to guarantee that we remain in the top flight for the next campaign, and a draw wouldn’t be the worst result either. However I don’t expect that either team would be entirely happy if the spoils are shared, and expect both to be going all out for the win.