With Cesc back fit, Arsenal should prove far too strong for struggling West Ham

Arsenal v West Ham, Premier League, March 20, 2010

Arsenal 1.19; Draw 5.65; West Ham 13.35

The big problem for West Ham is that, while few would expect them to get anything out of their trip to the Emirates on Saturday evening, with just nine games left and on a run of three straight defeats, time is running out for Gianfranco Zola’s men to keep their collective heads above water.

Having lost to Manchester United (3-nil away), Bolton (2-1 at home) and Chelsea (4-1 away) in recent weeks, one wonders what the morale is like at Upton Park these days.

Against the Blues last weekend there was so much to admire about the Eastenders first half display. They more than held their own in the opening 45, with Scott Parker capping a fine performance with a brilliant goal from 25-yards out. But after the break the Hammers were found wanting, as the relegation strugglers were punished for poor marking and allowing too many crosses into the box. In particular, Florent Malouda repeatedly roasted suspect right-back Jonathan Spector down the right-hand side, and the Frenchman barely needed much encouragement to send quality balls into the danger area.

Zola’s tactics at Chelsea also were slightly questionable. Winter signing Ilan Araujo looked so bad he could be the new Marco Boogers, while Mido was decent enough at holding up the ball and offering himself as an outlet for his teammates, yet he lacked much of the guile and attacking cut-and-thrust attitude which Carlton Cole has provided this season.

The Gunners though will provide a very different test to the problems the Hammers faced at Stamford Bridge last week. Arsenal will employ their pass-pass-pass style of attacking football, and if the Hammers arrive to the game in a stand-offish manner than the Gunners could chalk up a shed-load of goals.

Accordingly, West Ham will have to prove competitive in the centre of the park if they are to have any chance of picking up an unlikely point against the Wenger Boys. That will need the likes of Parker, Radoslav Kovac and Valon Behrami to work tirelessly at trying to disrupt the Arsenal rhythm. West Ham may also try and force the hosts to funnel the ball into their wide areas as, unlike Chelsea, the Gunners don’t usually rely on crosses and headers to win them their football matches. With just Nicklas Bendtner (six goals in his last five outings) to aim for in the danger area, Matthew Upson, Danny Gabbidon and Rob Green would surely welcome Arsenal trying to beat them by such tactics.

One thing that West Ham will be acutely aware of though is the need to play until the final whistle. No Premier League team has scored more times in the final 15 minutes this season than the Gunners, with Arsenal having scored 19 goals of their 71 goals in all competitions in the final 15 minutes.

Arsenal will hope that they won’t need to wait on Saturday to see off the Hammers, particularly as they’ve been boosted by the news that captain Cesc Fabregas has returned to full training after his recent hamstring injury. Cesc now appears set to return for the clash with West Ham, and his presence cannot be understated having scored 17 goals and contributed 12 assists in 32 games for the Gunners this term.

Fellow midfielder Tomas Rosicky is also set to return from injury and will be in contention for Saturday’s game and Alex Song will also be available for selection following suspension. Both players will have their work cut out to get into Wenger’s starting eleven, with Samir Nasri’s recent wonder-goal against Porto pencilling the Frenchman in as a certain starter, while Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin will all be hungry for starts too.

Arsenal are the Premier League’s form team and are gunning to win their sixth game in succession – something they haven’t achieved since 2007 – but should be mindful that West Ham have shown spirit in N5 in recent years. The Hammers were the last side to win at Highbury and the first to take three points from the Emirates in April 2007, while they have lost just once on their last four visits to Islington.

But recent history is far less generous to Zola’s men, who have won none of their last 14 Premier League away matches. It would take a brave person to back West Ham as reversing that trend this weekend against a team who have the league title in their sights.

101gg predicts: Arsenal 2 – West Ham 0 (5.75)

Arsenal 1.19; Draw 5.65; West Ham 13.35