Match Preview

Crunch time

Bar the 4-0 win in the League Cup in 2010 (one of the only bright spots during that disastrous season under Avram Grant), it has been a while since we beat Manchester United at the Boleyn. The last time, in December 2007, was a memorable one: Anton scoring against his brother; and that Matthew Upson goal, which still – every time I watch it – seems to be an almost impossible header, looping up and down and perfectly hitting the top corner. A Payet of a header. (That was also our third win against Manchester in a row in the league).

There have been near misses along the way in beating Manchester United in the league at home since then: during the Grant reign, we were 2-0 up only to lose 2-4. I always thought we might get something against Moyes’ men, but we didn’t – home or away. And even away from home we’ve been unlucky: earlier this season, a 0-0 draw that could have been a win if it had not been a moment of shocking wastefulness by Mauro Zarate.

Near misses – a summary of some of our recent matches. In the grand scheme of this season, they do not bother me much for this year cannot turn sour – even if tomorrow night does not go to plan. First thing’s first: it’s been an amazing season – made even better because of the unpredictability of the league as a whole and the possibilities of what smaller clubs can do: how they can challenge the big guns. It will be interesting to see whether that will continue next year: with Guardiola and Conte coming in, next year there will be a plethora of personalities to challenge Ranieri and Bilic’s limelight.

Yet near misses there have been: Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United in the original tie. All had refereeing disasters but all had that same familiarity: when we were on top, we did not bury it.

And that is why it’s crunch time. For me, this could be the game to really send a message: that when we are in form and dominating a game, we can close the match. The Tottenham game on Sunday was how it should be: we know tomorrow will be tight, and if anything van Gaal has more at stake: this could determine whether he stays or goes – and his team have shown a capacity to bounce back from disappointing results. But the Spurs match showed that – just like Andy Carroll scoring three goals in seven minutes – you can score a similar number against this United squad and kill of the game. Unfortunately for us, our poor defending meant three goals in seven minutes did not kill off the game. But we know we can do it and we know it is possible against this Manchester team.

Just as Payet is clinical with free kicks we need to be clinical when it comes to finishing off our chances: there were so many times when we broke against Arsenal, taking advantage of their clumsiness and pressing hard. But in recent weeks that killer edge has been lacking and we have only ourselves (and the referees) to blame.

Crunch time and that killer edge: we have already given the Boleyn a good send off with such a brilliant unbeaten run – as well as banished some demons at Anfield and Goodison. Let’s end our disappointing run against United at the Boleyn by grabbing a win that sends the Boleyn singing off into the night.

Both teams have everything to play for: them for some pride at the end of a season that offered so much; us, for the history of the Boleyn on its last FA Cup night and for a season that was not meant to offer so much. Both clubs have it all to play for. It’s crunch time. But we have lit up the league this season and provided some of its best moments. They have bored their fans and the neutrals, they have cluttered their squad with money and not passion. This should be ours.

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Talking Point

What Happens At The End Of This Roller Coaster?

Saturday’s match against Arsenal confirmed something that we’ve seen all season, we are a club with character and resilience that will fight back and get something out of a game, even when all seems lost. Unfortunately, we also saw evidence of the defensive frailties that have cost us so dearly in terms of league position this season during the course of the game (well, mostly the first half) as well. When you add the undeniable errors made by referees and their assistants into the mix, we could certainly find ourselves in a better situation than the one we are currently in, one that I’m sure most of us are still happy with. I don’t like to dwell on the past or ponder over the ifs and buts, we are where we are and it’s what we do from now on that matters most. We may have been unlucky but that doesn’t change our position in the table, what will however, is our performances and results from now until the end of the season.

Like any good conspiracy theory, the more you read of the one a few on here have conjured up, the more it makes sense. As much as I’d like the reason behind our recent stumble to be the ulterior motives of the powers that be, I refuse the let myself be that cynical. Mistakes have cost us. Sometimes it’s mistakes made by officials, I’ll accept that but more often than not, it’s the mistakes made by our players and the coaching staff that have really mattered. The tactics implemented in the first half of our fixture against Arsenal is one of the few examples where Bilic has got it wrong but to be second in a table of ‘defensive errors leading to goals’ with 13 errors (only Villa are above us after this weekend with 14 errors) just isn’t good enough for a team with aspirations of playing in Europe’s elite footballing competition.

What we witnessed on Saturday afternoon was a great game of football. We really needed the three points to get back on track in the hunt for that Champions League spot but when the final whistle blew, I was happy with the draw. Not because it was against Arsenal, but because of the circumstances in which it came about (I haven’t forgotten we were 3-2 up, I’ve just remembered the fact that we were 2-0 down). Again, the debate over decisions made by officials threatened to overshadow proceedings but an enthralling 3-3 appeared to keep everyone happy. Okay, maybe not everyone. It’s impossible to have an opinion on the game and Craig Pawson’s impact on it without getting criticism from some direction. In short, Lanzini was onside and had the linesman been on the other side of the pitch, he probably would have seen that. Ozil was onside for their opener, just. Carroll could have been sent off early on and if he was playing for the opposition, we would have been jotting it down as another example of the FA and the referee being paid off to make sure we lost. Arsenal’s second was a well worked goal that encapsulated our defensive struggles in the opening 45 minutes. Andy Carroll showed what he’s all about in the final three minutes of the first half and got us back in the game. I was screaming at the TV when Pawson adjudged Carroll to have fouled Koscielny before Payet prodded the ball home but on reflection, it was an incident that for me, only highlighted the fine margins in the game of football. Had it been Giroud on Reid and Sanchez scoring to give Arsenal a 4-3 lead in the final minutes of the game, petitions would be doing the rounds and we’d be organising a protest march to the FA headquarters. Instead, we got what we worked for and took the lead but couldn’t quite hold on for the win. In amongst all that action there was an apparent ‘stonewall’ penalty claim for a foul on Lanzini? He’d lost control of both the ball and his balance before any debatable contact was even made and Pawson had every right to waive the appeals away.

I’m not going to devise a formula that proves we would have won 6-3 if our two disallowed goals had stood and we were awarded the penalty that definitely would have been given to any other team in the Premier League. A penalty which, of course, would have 100% been converted. Instead, I’ll take a look at the positives from the game. Andy Carroll grabbed the match ball as well as the headlines, and rightly so. I feel like we’d all be waiting for a performance like that and a lot of people, including myself, had faith that one day the big man would come good. Carroll undoubtedly offers something different, something that, at times, no team can deal with. Bilic claimed in his post-match interview that Carroll is the best in the world when it comes to heading the football and I don’t think there are many that would argue against that statement. Unfortunately, the lad just cannot stay fit for a decent run of games. Had he been fully-fit for the entirety of this current campaign, I truly believe we could be looking at our 20 goals a season striker. Payet’s performance was another major plus for me. Although in previous weeks he’s left football fans across the world awestruck with his free-kick prowess, I felt he’d slightly gone off the boil in terms of his all-round performance. On Saturday afternoon the Frenchman showed flawless composure on the ball which helped instigate and maintained numerous attacks. He contributed in all areas of the pitch rather than just putting the ball in the back of the net (I’m aware of how silly that sounds but I’d like to think you know where I’m coming from). Cresswell made my top three of West Ham performances. Although improvements still need to be made with regard to his defensive play, he offered us a real outlet going forward and some of the crosses put in from the wide left would have been reminiscent to those Andy Carroll was dreaming of on Friday night.

It’s now time to focus on what is important and it doesn’t get much more so than our FA Cup quarter-final match against Manchester United on Wednesday evening. It’s the biggest match of our season so far and a win would take us one step closer to a fairytale FA Cup triumph in our final season at the Boleyn Ground. We might not have had the rub of the green in recent weeks but I’m sure Bilic and the boys will be going into the game full of confidence and after a 3-0 drubbing on Sunday, United may well be there for the taking. It’s football, it’s the FA Cup, we never really know what’s going to happen but if we eliminate silly defensive errors and play the way we can, I fully expect us to book a semi-final showdown with Everton and a Roberto Martinez side that have really been struggling of late.

Without looking to far ahead, we all know we’re coming to the ‘business end’ of the Premier League season. We’ve only got six games to go and whilst fourth isn’t out of reach, finishing as low as ninth is still a possibility. Southampton and Liverpool seem to have finally found some form and if we don’t turn recent draws into wins, we could well find ourselves sliding down the table. Everyone in and around us have equally difficult run-ins in terms of remaining fixtures and there’s no reason why we can’t win the majority of ours and if we do, fourth just might ours. For me, our league position isn’t the be all and end all. It would obviously be great to play in the Champions League in our first season at the Olympic Stadium (with all the added financial benefits that come with it) but this was always a season to build on. It’s certainly one that has given something to back the fans and for many, it’s reignited a passion they have for the club that was in danger fading away. I’m happy with what I’ve seen this season. It’s been exciting, it’s been thrilling and above all, it’s been promising. Lifting some silverware would really make it a season to remember but no matter what happens from now on, I certainly feel proud to be a Hammer.


The HamburgHammer Column

Losing 3:3 to Arsenal, Sakho doing the diva and referees behaving shockingly again

Well, fellow WHTIDers: Let me start by thanking you all again for the wonderful reactions to my previous article chronicling events and antics of my recent trip to East London for the Palace game. I didn’t quite expect so much positivity and goodwill but I’m glad most of you liked the piece anyway…

Back to Planet Earth then after that fantastic trip of mine, back to my own living room and armchair in East Hamburg (I’ve actually started calling the place Dagenhamburg now, in an affectionate way mind), screwdriver at the ready of course and boy, did I need it for this game! When we went 2:0 down I immediately thought back to Norwich and Everton away and subsequently kept watching in anticipation of a fightback which is exactly what we got. After getting our tactics slightly wrong with the defensive setup initially Bilic made the necessary amendments second half and then of course there was the Andy Carroll we had hoped, wished and prayed for ever since he signed for West Ham, the one who is unplayable, not because he’s watching from the stands, injured yet again, but because he is a handful for any defender when he is actually fit and playing..

The Arsenal game was without doubt one of the best this 44 year old Hamburglar has ever seen and it is not often that I am still disappointed after drawing 3:3 with Wenger FC. This felt more like a cruel and undeserved defeat and unfortunately yet again the referee (with assistance from his linos) had a hand or two in it.
Not giving a perfectly legitimate onside goal by Lanzini, failing to send off Gabriel after clearly lashing out at Carroll with his foot (after getting fouled by Carroll immediately prior to that), not giving the Payet goal (which is one of those which could have gone either way to be fair) plus giving numerous decisions Arsenal’s way while also allowing one of their goals to stand which was at least borderline offside.

Yes, he maybe could also have given Carroll a second yellow card at one stage, but overall it was still a pretty biased and shocking performance by Mr.Pawson.
Now then, I like a good old conspiracy theory as much as the next geezer, it’s good for a bit of a giggle, it’s exciting, it gives us something to pontificate about (thanks Zaman!).
In terms of referees or the FA conspiring against West Ham getting into the Champions League though I am not so sure.
Does anyone really believe the FA has held a secret meeting with all their referees in a secluded Ipswich hotel, handing out orders to deliberately give decisions against West Ham on a regular basis to keep them from finishing 4th or 3rd ? Maybe promising them bonus payments for their services at the end of the season or a two week all expenses paid holiday to Barbados ? I’m not buying that.

Then again, bad decisions against us and penalties not given in our favour have piled up over the course of the season and especially in the last five games or so.
The timing of this is significant too as we have reached the business end of the season. Leicester are almost over the line to win the title, they are already over the line actually in terms of playing CL football next season – don’t forget, at the expense of at least one of the usual suspects like Chelsea or Liverpool.
Does the FA maybe feel a bit uncomfortable with the thought of another rebel club like West Ham breaking the top four and take CL football away from yet another usual suspect in Manchester United or Manchester City ? It still is too unlikely a scenario to even consider it to be true, but then again it does make a lot of sense in terms of protecting the global marketability of the Premier League. We can’t have all those Asian Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool fans going through a season without CL football for their adopted clubs only to see unfashionable newcomers like Leicester and West Ham gatecrashing the party…

What doesn’t quite make so much sense to me anymore is starting Adrian in league games. In my view he no longer is the automatic choice he used to be as he has been very erratic in recent games, committed the odd shocker (like against Palace) and in general has been sending out pretty nervous and insecure vibes lately all of which seems to affect our defenders.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Adrian to bits, he’s a club legend in the making already and a great guy to have at West Ham, but he shouldn’t be immune to losing his shirt after a series of less than impressive performances. Randolph deserves his chance in my view, he is incredible calm and composed and that seems to filter through to the rest of the team.

The thought of Randolph in goal for us fills me with a lot more confidence at the moment than Adrian keeping his place and we have plenty of games coming up anyway, so no reason not to give Adrian a bit of an extended breather.

The absence of Sakho for the Arsenal game has resulted in an avalanche of rumours about why exactly he was missing: Minor knock suffered in training as Bilic hinted at in interviews ? Did he walk out of training in anger and not show up for the Arsenal game because he had been told that Carroll would be starting and not him ?
Is there something even more sinister in it, like him engaging in some sort of relationship with the girlfriend or wife of a teammate as has been rumoured on another West Ham forum ? We can only hope it is indeed just a minor injury that kept him out rather than one of the other scenarios.
Bilic won’t have any of that, he has started to build our success on a solid foundation of togetherness, teamwork and chemistry in the dressing room.

You rock the boat at your own peril as guys like Amalfitano and Zarate had to learn the hard way. I get it if Sakho feels frustrated at not playing, having just returned from a lengthy injury spell. I expect every single one of our players in our squad itching to play every single game, especially our strikers. But the team is the most important thing.
If Bilic felt Carroll was the best option to cause Arsenal problems (and boy, did he cause Arsenal problems on Saturday!) then this is the manager’s prerogative and the players need to accept that. I reckon we will learn soon enough what really is behind all this and if matters can be resolved with a serious talk between Bilic and Sakho.

If not, then we could do a lot worse than signing Emenike on a permanent deal. I’ve been singing his praises for a while as I like a trier and a workhorse at West Ham and he is certainly that. Fenerbahce’s asking price is rumoured to be around the 8 million quid mark and if we can negotiate that down somewhat I reckon he is someone worth considering to bolster our options. He hasn’t scored many yet, but that could just be an issue of scoring one league goal to get the confidence growing and banging in a few more after that.

He runs his socks off for the team, has a good first touch and creates spaces and opportunities for others too. He’s a bit of an unsung hero and I can see him as a West Ham player beyond this quite remarkable season. “The fighting goalscorer” has been his nickname in Turkey and Nigeria, we’ve seen plenty of fight for him so far, let’s hope we now get to see more of his goalscoring side as well in the upcoming games.

Right then, Manchester United next, final FA Cup game ever under the Boleyn lights, another night of potential magic, beauty and sheer excitement in East London.
I’ll throw my hat in the ring here and ask for JOB to start at RB, he is just the kind of experienced head and solid no-nonsense performer we need there at the moment.
Leave the tricks, flicks and stepovers to guys like Payet, Lanzini and Antonio – and let JOB handle that right side of our defense which has looked shaky in recent weeks.
Other than that I just hope we give them one hell of a game and the result will not be unduly affected by more howlers from the refereeing crew.
On paper we should have more than enough for them to go through top the semi finals, with or without Rooney on the pitch.

May the screwdriver do its job and may the dead badger be with us! COYI !!!

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The Mike Ireson Column

Poking the polar bear

At 1.20pm on Saturday afternoon I was starting to regret accepting an invitation to watch the game at my Arsenal supporting brother-in-law’s house.

Having left gaps at the back big enough to drive a travelling circus through, Alexis Sanchez had just dealt us a second punishing blow.

I reminded my brother-in-law of the Everton fight back, he thought the game was won. I didn’t.

Where we are now as a team is a wonderful place to be. Despite mistakes by ourselves and the officials putting us on the wrong end of a 2-0 score line, we played as if we were the side in command. Heads didn’t drop, in fact it was akin to poking a polar bear with a stick. The beast was made angry and ready to fight.

And fight it did.

And what happened when we pulled one back? Arsenal did the opposite to us. They looked nervous, unassured, almost afraid.

The claret and blue beast seized upon this and struck 2 more vicious blows to a now cowering Arsenal side.

It was quite simply a sublime comeback, adding yet another highlight to this fantastic season.

But the bear rattling the cage was not the previously all conquering headline grabber Mr Payet.

Quite rightly this season, ourselves and many others have lauded Dimitri as the star attraction. On Saturday though we (and Mr Hodgson) were reminded that we have another very unique talent in our ranks.

It’s something we all tell anyone that will listen that on his day Andy Carroll is unplayable. When he is fit, confident and provided with the right service, he is equal to any striker in the Premier League.

If we could keep him fit, he is more than capable of being a 25 goal a season player. And those are very very hard to come by.

We don’t need to be splashing big money for a goal grabber to push us on, we just need to keep the world class one we have already injury free. The goals will come, and often.

Speaking of not needing to splash big money I need to mention 2 other players. Michail Antonio and Aaron Cresswell. £10m for the pair. That is stunning value.
Both have now settled in to vital roles within the team. I am never not impressed by either, both epitomising what it takes to be a West Ham great – not giving up, always giving 100% and looking like wearing claret and blue really means something to them.

We can now look forward to Manchester United with real relish on Wednesday. If they grab an early goal so what? If they get 2, so what? This team will fight and claw its way back.

The team is by no means perfect but it’s ability to keep its head up and fight on is the real turnaround this season. 2-0 down to anyone in years gone by would have been goodnight nurse. Now it’s a signal to hold on to your seats and don’t dare look away from the action.


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Zaman Siddiqui's Match Review

Handy Andy

It was very concerning to see that Diafra Sakho’s name was neither in the starting XI, nor the substitutes’ bench! First, he doesn’t appear for a shirt signing event at the West Ham Lakeside store, then posts a cryptic message on Snapchat a few days after. After the match, David Gold posted on Twitter that the Senegalese striker: “Didn’t feel well” and that he should be back to face Manchester United in the FA Cup on Wednesday. This meant that Carroll was handed his first start in three months. Ah, the magic number! Carroll bossed the Arsenal defence with his terrific heading ability, albeit with some poor marking and decision making from their defence. Former Gooner Ian Wright was full of praise for the striker commenting: ’He will cause anyone in Europe problems if you get the right service into him." How Wright you are! Wayne Rooney was the last player to score a hat-trick against the Gunners back in August 2011. Additionally, he has also managed to get the most shots in a PL game this season with 10, and scored the fastest hat-trick of the season so far in seven minutes. It serves to emphasise his superiority when he is at his best. Carroll still harbours European ambitions so he is going to have to play well, as he did yesterday. Like the manner in which he scored with his headers, he is going to have to be patient.

A place in the top 5 is still within our grasp or if you’re more ambitious, then top 4. A league match against Manchester United awaits us, but we can’t slip up before it. If we put too much emphasis on the FA Cup, we risk losing our position in 6th place. The teams directly below us are only a few points behind us. We have drawn three consecutive league matches for only the second time this season, albeit from refereeing decisions going against us. The last time we finished 5th in the league was in the 1998-99 season. If Liverpool win two of their unplayed fixtures, they will be within a point of us. Southampton are another team with a good squad who continue to get results each season. They finished 8th two seasons ago, and finished 7th last season. The point I am getting at is that a PL team that finishes in the top half will continue to improve over time. Stoke City are another example of this phenomenon in the Premier League. With a new stadium, we are even more likelier to build on our previous successes.

Referee’s decisions have cost us massively! In chronological order, Bobby Madley wrongfully awarded a penalty to Chelsea when the foul was outside the box. Mark Clattenburg gave Kouyaté a straight red, which was later rescinded. Finally, Lanzini’s goal was deemed offside by the assistant referee Darren Cann. We should be in the top 4 right now or at the very least, right in contention for the top 4. A win for Manchester United today will put them four points ahead of us. For me, Clattenburg’s decision has got to be the worst. I feel Karren Brady expressed what we felt best: Clattenburg literally brandished a red card “with the speed of a 50/1 winning betting slip.” That is why that error was the hardest to forget.

Honestly, I can’t fault Craig Pawson’s performance yesterday. I blame Darren Cann, the linesman, for disallowing Lanzini’s header which was actually onside. It was actually scored in the 13th minute, which makes it extremely unlucky! To my knowledge, there weren’t any players blocking off Cann, but he failed to see Lanzini’s prominent position. I feel that the only mistake the referee made was not giving Gabriel a yellow card for his foul on Carroll, which should have given us a free-kick. Gabriel used his legs as he was on the floor to bring down the big man, so perhaps the referee noticed Andy putting too much pressure on the Arsenal defender, and thus awarded the free-kick in favour of the Gunners. I also feel he was right to rule out Payet’s goal, as Carroll was clearing holding onto Koscielny right in front of the referee. Additionally, he was right to book Carroll early on in the game for a very late and reckless foul on Koscielny. That said, we have done very well not to lose at home and keep our home record of 14 undefeated matches. Carrying our brilliant form into our new home will be simply astonishing!

Recently, we may have failed to get decisions going our way, but we have conceded an awful lot of goals in the last four league matches. We have conceded 9 goals, of which 8 should stand. The only goal that shouldn’t be counted is the Fabregas penalty. Before the four fixtures, we conceded 31 goals in 28 matches, which is 1.1 goals conceded a match. However, in the space of 4 matches, we have conceded 9 goals, which is more than double the amount we normally concede. Even if you disregard the Fabregas penalty, it still makes for grim reading. The nature of the goals conceded yesterday was very worrying. The positioning of the back three was destitute. The static back four were a lot more effective. I miss Sam Byram. Sadly, he is cup-tied, so won’t feature against the Red Devils.

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