Guest Post by Benjamin Cronin
With a convincing second half performance that led to a comfortable victory against a struggling Hull side, talk of Europa League and (don’t say it too loud) Champions League football is on the lips of many a West Ham fan once again. We’re creeping closer to the the business end of the season and rather than concerning ourselves with those fabled relegation six pointers, Big Sam is looking up and thinking positive as he takes his side into possibly the most important seven games of the season. Granted, a good start or strong finish can always save a team or salvage one of those top four places. But what will these next few games tell us about West Ham?
Within the next month or so, The Mighty Irons will host Manchester United and the current leaders of the Premier League, Chelsea, as well as travelling to another three of the six sides who sit above us in the table; Southampton, Tottenham and Arsenal. As if this task didn’t seem daunting enough, it all kicks off with a trip to Anfield to face a side who sit just one place and one point below us. So, will the bubbles streaming from the Boleyn soon be burst or will even the most optimistic of Hammers fans be in for a shock come 24th May?
With Liverpool seemingly creeping towards their form of last year (albeit still a long way off), the trip to Anfield will be a lot more of a challenge than it would have appeared only a few weeks back, or certainly more than the reverse fixture when we had them beat within the first ten minutes in September. The Reds League Cup success could both help and hinder The Irons, another positive performance against Chelsea could see them reach the final and boost morale ahead of the encounter but a loss could deflate the side who will also be left with fitness concerns (assuming Rodgers plays Gerrard, it’s most likely he would need to be rested for the following game) after the second leg of their tie. In a game that is sure to be a close run thing, the likes of Carroll and Downing can return to what will undoubtedly be a frosty reception at Anfield and prove they do have the ability that earned them big money moves to Merseyside. As Liverpool currently sit second in the leagues form table, I would be looking for a strong defensive performance with avoiding defeat perhaps more important than trying to steal a win. Big Sam and the boys coming back to the East End with a point would be a positive but there’s always a chance of nabbing all three if we keep it close.
Next is a home game against Manchester United, which, bar the last two seasons, would usually only go one way. Although we’ve had numerous ‘big results’ back in the days of Ferguson, United would always seemingly scrape through (or score a 50-yard half volley) and get a result. They’ve had a few moments where they’ve played well and shown how Van Gaals much publicised ‘football philosophy’ could potentially work but there’s still no caparison to the side who, under Ferguson, could play terribly and come away with a 3-0 win. It tense game at Old Trafford, when two early goals put United in the driving seat and they managed to cling on for a win. It’s another game that I’d like to see the side of Allardyce that had many calling for his head last season. Defence should be given priority (as I’m sure it will with concerns over clean sheets coming to the fore over the last few weeks) and providing we take the chances that will undoubtedly be created, a win wouldn’t be a shock but again, I’d settle for a point.
Trips to St. Mary’s and White Hart Lane are always going to be difficult with both teams showing consistent form. Although no one can deny how impressive Southampton have been this season, Tottenham aren’t exactly cruising to victories (with a late 2-1 apparently popping up every week). Spurs are perhaps more accustomed to their current position but have a completely new squad to the one that reached the Champions League and have been there or thereabouts since, as well as a new manager who after a good few seasons in the Premier League still appears to divide opinion. With Crystal Palace following these two fixtures I would expect a minimum of four points out of the three games but between six and nine wouldn’t come as a surprise.
Southampton are perhaps one side who have come to the Boleyn this season and actually outplayed West Ham. Another side who have the potential to do the same is the current leaders and favourites for the title, Chelsea. In all honestly, West Ham were lucky to come back from Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day without being embarrassed like Swansea last weekend. Mourinho’s men ran the game and it was only thanks to Adrian that the deficit wasn’t more than two. If Chelsea turn up and play well, The Hammers will have to be at their resolute best for the entire 90 minutes to keep them out. Although the Blues have been by far the best team in the league this season, they have shown instances of struggling through games. Big Sam will be hoping that Jose and his team aren’t at their sleek and stylish best (an exit from the League Cup could help this) and that the crowd and our impressive home form can get us a result.
A trip to the emirates brings an end to this run of crucial fixtures and come mid-March, we could be expecting rather than speculating about the prospect of European football. It certainly doesn’t feel like it was eight-years ago that Bobby Zamora scored the goal that helped West Ham, then led by Curbishley, to be the first side to win at the Emirates, but in that time a lot has changed. We’ve been down and up and now, on the verge of our own ‘big move’, are a completely differently club. After Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher apparently jumped ship and started supporting Arsenal following their performance against City, I’m still yet to be convinced. City were far from at their best and although Arsenal took advantage of it, I’m sure Neville and Carragher will be picking holes in the Gunners defensive frailties in the not too distant future. It’s another game in which our multi-faceted approach could be key. A strong, physical defensive performance tends to result in Arsenal struggling and that, paired with Carrol and Valencia putting pressure on a notoriously (despite the pundits drastic change of opinion) defence, a positive result isn’t out of reach. Again, avoiding defeat must be given priority but it’s a game I can see us growing into and taking three points from.
The likes of Adrian, Cresswell, Jenkinson, Song, Downing and Carroll have stood out for me this season but I feel the next few games will be decided by smart tactics and Big Sam can show just what a great manager he can be. The much maligned solid and compact system from last year may well return over the next few weeks and although many fans would like to see us continue our attacking football against the likes of; Liverpool, Manchester United, Southampton, Tottenham and Chelsea it will instead be the ability to provide disciplined defensive performances that will define our season. If the side manage to get through the next month or so with only one or two extra losses on the record, there is a great possibility of kicking on and finishing the season strongly. The consistency of the first half of the season must remain, those influential players previous mentioned need to avoid the inevitable injuries and with a little bit of luck (turning draws against the likes of Swansea and West Brom into victories), The Boleyn could be hosting some of Europe’s finest next year.