Without Parker, West Ham face yet another six-pointer as Sunderland stroll into the capital

West Ham v Sunderland, Premier League, April 10, 2010

West Ham 2.02; Draw 3.27; Sunderland 3.49

It says quite a lot about what an awful season it has been for West Ham when a last-gasp equaliser at Everton is celebrated like a winner.

Ilan Araujo’s 87th minute diving header at Goodison Park last weekend saved the Hammers from their seventh straight defeat and, more importantly, took the claret and blues out of the bottom three. The Eastenders now sit one point above 18th-placed Hull, although the Tigers have one game in hand, meaning that slip-ups must be avoided if top flight survival is to be achieved.

With that in mind, West Ham will know that the visit of Sunderland is a must-win game. The cliches just roll off the tongue: its do-or-die or a mega six-pointer. Labels aside though, the obvious fear is that the same hype was present when Bolton, Wolves and Stoke all arrived at Upton Park in March, only for all three relegation strugglers to leave London with the three points.

Adding to the Hammers pre-match worries, West Ham also know that they welcome the Black Cats without their star performer this season. After collecting his tenth booking of the season, and incurring an automatic two game ban, Scott Parker will be missing from action on Saturday and his absence from both a battling and leadership perspective will be sorely missed in the centre of the park.

Who will step in to Parker’s boots? Mark Noble has upped his performances in recent weeks and could receive the nod from Zola to fill in central midfield, and it’s also likely the the dinky Italian will opt for Valon Behrami as Noble’s sidekick. Radoslav Kovac is the other alternative to plug the hole in the middle, with Danny Gabiddon back in contention to play at the heart of the Hammers defence.

Depending on how ambitious Zola is feeling, there is also the option to switch to a more attacking 4-3-3 style of football. Carlton Cole will lead the line as the side’s main goal-threat, while Mido will also be pushing for a start to rectify his wrong from last weekend when he fluffed a penalty against the Toffees. Last weekend’s hero Ilan is also in contention having pulled the rabbit out the hat on his last appearance, while Italian firebrand Alessandro Diamanti is also an option for Zola.

Apart from Parker, the star of West Ham at present has been the much maligned Julien Faubert. The right-sided defender/midfielder has played out of his skin throughout the past few months. During this time he has scored his first goal for the club since signing in 2007, become a first-team regular, and, following his delicious cross that set-up Ilan last weekend, is now looked upon as a creative asset for the Hammers too.

After dispatching of Spurs 3-1 last weekend, Sunderland will also arrive on Saturday in buoyant mood. And Steve Bruce expressed his team’s confidence as they prepare to head down to the capital, saying “This is a match that we’ve got to look do well in. We’ve had an excellent record on the quiet recently – we’ve only lost to Arsenal and Liverpool in 11 games – and I’d love us to do something about our poor away record over the next few games. It would be great to think we might get our second away win of the season this weekend, but we know it will be tough.”

Key to their recent success has been the Black Cats scoring form. Sunderland have scored eleven goals in their last six matches with Darren Bent netting seven of those. Bent is now only four goals behind leading Premier League scorer Wayne Rooney, and arguably he should be only two behind Wazza after he had two penalties saved by Heurelho Gomes last weekend. However, despite Bent’s scoring exploits, it is worth noting that that his last seven goals have all been scored at the Stadium of Light.

Away from home it’s been a hard slog all season for the Wearsiders. Bruce’s boys arrive at Upton Park having, like the Hammers, only won one away game all campaign, and that, again like West Ham, came on the opening day of the season when they won 1-0 at Bolton Wanderers. Two draws in the last four away games at Portsmouth and Aston Villa suggest things may be improving on that front though.

Former Hammer Anton Ferdinand is likely to return to Upton Park for a second time, though George McCartney is set to miss out through injury, just as he did last season. The visitors’ defence will be in high spirits though, with Craig Gordon’s return between the sticks a major plus as the season draws to a close.

So who’ll win? History and Sunderland’s away form seem to suggest that West Ham will take the points. (1.22 on either a West Ham win or draw.) Pressure and the absence of Scott Parker might suggest otherwise.

101gg predicts: West Ham 2 – Sunderland 1 (7.59)

West Ham 2.02; Draw 3.27; Sunderland 3.49