West Ham v Stoke, Premier League, March 5, 2011
West Ham and Stoke are getting to know each other pretty well this season.Â The Hammers and Potters face-off for the third time this season on Saturday as the Irons look to continue their great escape from the drop-zone, while hoping to suck Stoke right back in theÂ relegationÂ shake-up.
So far this campaign the Eastenders have the advantage. They drew 1-1 at theÂ Britannia back inÂ September whileÂ they knocked Tony Pulis’s men out of the Carling Cup back in October.Â Moreover, Saturday’s match starts a back-to-back, head-to-head between the two sides. After facing off in the league, the pair then duel again in the FA Cup quarter-finals. Thus, the overall success of both teams this season will be deep-rooted in their matches against one-another.
For the first time in a long time, West Ham fans will be arriving at Upton Park inÂ buoyantÂ mood this weekend. The 3-1 win over Liverpool last time out, coupled with the 5-1 thrashing of Burnley in the FA Cup the match previous, plus the return of Thomas Hitzlsperger to actually take part in West Ham’s season, means that – despite remaining in the bottom three – there is a narrow beam of light at the end of the tunnel.
The win over the Reds was special. With the Scousers in fine pomp under the leadership of King Kenny, and with the Irons having a largelyÂ disastrous record against the Merseysiders, optimism was generally in short supply before kick-off. But then the Hammers did something few expected. They put in a 90-minute shift (i.e. more than just a good spell in the match, which has often been their downfall). They controlled the tempo from almost start to finish. They scored a regular intervals throughout. Whenever Liverpool started to get foothold in the game, West Ham quickly and decisively squashed it.
Save for the 4-nil Carling Cup win over Manchester United, it was undoubtedly West Ham’s performance of the season. Definitely their best league performance. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
No more does Avram Grant have to resort to playing Jonathan Spector as a central midfielder. Parker, Hitzlsperger, Noble and O’Neil formed aÂ formidableÂ foursome, leaving onlookers to wonder just how different the Hammers’ season may have been if all four would have beenÂ availableÂ back in August.Â And they weren’t the only good performers on show.
The largely inconsistent Matthew Upson produced one of his best displays of a worryingly season, looking particularly solid in the air. Demba Ba convinced Irons’ fans that he is striker who can help keep them up with a terrific, goalscoring shift. While Carlton Cole, who has also struggled this year, notched his sixth goal in ten games to add more weight to the Hammer’s attacking arsenal.
Yet, it must not be forgotten, West Ham remain in the shit. Second from bottom and with a minus 18 goal-difference, so terrible has West Ham’s season been that they are now forced to beat the likes of Liverpool if they are to have any chance of being in the Premier League in August. Too many poor results against the likes of Birmingham, Newcastle, Wolves, West Brom and Everton, have meant that getting results against the top teams is a must. Winning well is simply a luxury.
If West Ham fail to consolidate their Liverpool triumph against Stoke, all the good-will will evaporate instantly. And while many Hammers may be confident that can claim all three points, Stoke will be all-too-happy to bring their aerial, spoiling tactics down to London to fill the roles of party-poopers.
In truth, the Potters also need the points this weekend. Carlos Vela’s offside equaliser for the Baggies left Stoke with a poor record of four defeats, one draw and only one win in their last six league games. And whilst their faithful maybe generally confident that their 10th spot in the division means they’ll avoid the drop, you can bet your bottom dollar that Tony Pulis is fully aware that his boys are only six points off the relegation places.
But Stoke’s recent results fail to tell the full picture. Two games ago, in the 1-nil loss at the Emirates, Tony Pulis’s charges came within a whisker of pulling off the draw as they almost totally smothered the skills of Arsenal. Then, against the Baggies, the three points slipped through their grasp by a poor non-decision from the linesman. Thus it’s not as if Stoke have suddenly fallen off the boil. It’s more like Lady Luck has decided to take a few weeks off.
Whether she returns against the Hammers is the question now at hand, yet Stoke are hardly a team who really on good fortune. They’re a team who thrive on getting in their opponents faces. They are as direct as they come. A few disappointing results will have done little to change that.
Former Hammer Matthew Etherington should be deemed fit to start his first match since recovering from a knock, meaning that with Jermaine Pennant on the opposing flank, Stoke will be able to play their standard 4-4-2 formation. John Carew and Kenwyne Jones should pose many problems to the often soft West Ham defence,Â whileÂ at the back Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth will naturally keep order.
Stoke, having lost their last five away trips in the league, nevertheless look ripe for defeat again this weekend to a seemingÂ resurgentÂ Hammers’ outfit. Yet fewer things seem riskier these days than going out on a limb and backing a West Ham victory.
A draw will help no-one, which could well be why it’s probably the likeliest outcome.
101gg predicts: West Ham 1 – Stoke 1