29 April 2022

West Ham preview: possibly the best outcome we could have hoped for...

What appears to be our toughest remaining fixture may have just gotten ever so slightly less tough. West Ham went into their semi-final first leg against Eintracht Frankfurt eager and optimistic only to see the wheels come off inside the very first minute,  scoring from a swift counterattack that saw just about everyone in a Hammers kit seem like they were running in quicksand—and there would still be 89 minutes to play. The hosts did find an equaliser quickly, but a second Frankfurt goal early in the second half meant that the Hammers would have to expend maximum effort for the full 90 plus stoppage time. It's a good thing that Moyes managed his subsitutions well by—oh. I'm told he made only one substitution. Hm. This would suggest—and bear with me here, we're through the looking-glass—that key players logged heavy minutes and covered a lot of ground to chase that first European trophy since 1965. 
Stalwarts like Cresswell, Soucek, Rice, Zouma, Bowen, Fornals, and Antonio played the full match, with only Lanzini being replaced by Benrahma in the 66th minute. With that Europa League final still dangling tantalizingly out of reach, it's likely that most of them will be rested for the weekend. The flipside to this is that most of the reserves will be fresh as daisies. We may see a backline of Cresswell, Zouma, and Johnson, each of whom played the full 90 but also acquitted themselves very well in West Ham's trip to Stamford Bridge, which they only lost due to Dawson's red card and a last-gasp goal from Pulisic. It's likely that we'll see a 3-4-2-1 with Coufal, Soucek, Noble, and Masuaku trying to clog up the midfield, soak up pressure, and just get through the match so as to conserve energy for that second leg four days after Sunday's derby.

The bad news then is that we may very well be in for a dull, dour match such as we might face against an overmatched squad struggling to stave off relegation rather than a side fighting for a top-five finish. Should West Ham get to the Europa League final and win, they'll qualify for next season's Champions League campaign. The good news is that this should really only benefit us; fourth place still qualifies for the same. A West Ham side fully focused on that Europa League trophy is far less likely to fight for a distant, ever-fading chance at finishing fourth in the Prem. To do so, they'd have to win all of their remaining four matches while we fail to take five points from our remaining five, Tottenham fail to take seven points from their remaining five matches, and Man U fail to take ten points from their remaining three. In other words, it's Europa League or bust for West Ham.

At our end, we've found some semblance of form, having seen off Chelsea and Man U by a combined 7-3 scoreline in the span of four days, and it seems that our young squad is up for it. It might be a bit much to say that we're resurgent, but we've bounced back from our worst stretch since the opening weeks. I suspect we'll see the same lineup that we saw against Man U, with Nketiah again leading the line after a strong performance against Chelsea and a decent one against Man U. Smith-Rowe, Ƙdegaard, and Saka form one of the Prem's most-scintillating midfields, supported by the usually reliable and rarely reckless Elneny paired with Xhaka, and about as strong a backline as we can field given injuries. Oh yeah, Ramsdale's between the sticks, but that's no surprise.

Prediction: West Ham 0-2 Arsenal (Nketiah and Saka to score).

MOTM: Elneny.

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