Five games to go. Fifteen points to play for. And today we go to West Ham who are fighting away on two fronts with important Premier League points at stake, but also a European semi-final second leg to consider.
I imagine that with the game coming up on Thursday, David Moyes won’t take any unnecessary risks with players who might be on the edge, but beyond that I don’t think they’ll be as weak or rotated as some people suspect. Their shortage at centre-half means they’ll probably try and be as strong as possible elsewhere to offset that. Not to mention that even a West Ham side that ‘rested’ Rice, Bowen, Lanzini and Antonio last week made life very difficult for Chelsea who only found the breakthrough very late and when the Hammers were down to 10 men.
I looked back to see our results when we had Europa League semi-finals. In 2018 between the two legs against Atletico Madrid, we lost 2-1 to Man Utd at Old Trafford; in 2019 there was a 1-1 draw with Brighton either side of games against Valencia; and last season we beat Newcastle 2-0 as we faced Villarreal twice. I think the idea of European distraction is bigger in our heads as fans than it actually is in reality. West Ham are at home and will want to win this game, no two ways about it.
However, this isn’t about West Ham as much as it us. Each game we face now is a test of our ability and character as we chase this top four finish, and it’s not that the opposition doesn’t matter, it’s that the only thing we can control is what we do. Last season this was a crazy game. West Ham were 3-0 up after about half an hour, before a sensational Martin Odegaard performance helped drag us back into it. If we can replicate the second part of that without the first part, that would be very welcome.
Asked about the difference between then and now, Mikel Arteta said:
We have very different players in the squad and we have a very different environment. I think the unity that exists right now between the team, the staff, our supporters and externally is completely different and is very very beneficial for the team and obviously, how the team has evolved in its understanding of what we want to do is much better.
In terms of the team news, the only change I can see being made is Takehiro Tomiyasu returning at right back after his short cameo against Man Utd last week. I’ve seen some speculation he could play at left back or his return might mean Cedric shifting over there, but I think Arteta will stick with Nuno Tavares and look for the balance that Tomi brings on the right to make us more defensively solid. Make no mistake though, if we have some worries about Nuno you can be sure that West Ham will see his side as a possible weakness they will try and exploit. I’m sure the manager is well aware of that too.
Beyond that it’ll be the Granit Xhaka/Mo Elneny central midfield, the only choice further forward is Emile Smith Rowe or Gabriel Martinelli on the left – and that’s one of those rare ones where I’m happy either way. I’m assuming that Bukayo Saka is fit enough to start this one, he was looking happy enough in the training pictures, so his place on the right is assured while Eddie Nketiah will continue up front. He only missed out on a goal against United by the finest of VAR offside lines, so hopefully he can continue in much the same vein today.
What happens before our game shouldn’t be of any consequence one way or the other, it doesn’t change what we need to do, and I’m sure the manager will be stressing that to his players. This is going to be a real scrap, so let’s hope the focus is there, and we can play the kind of stuff which will hurt West Ham. It feels like a game where getting ahead will be more important than ever. We know what our record is like when we score first as opposed to when we don’t, but how hard will today’s opposition chase if they’re behind knowing they’ve got bigger fish to fry on Thursday? I think that’s where the Europa League becomes more significant so fingers crossed we make that happen.
Catch you later for all that. Come on you reds.