1. In Sickness And In Health
At the time of this fixture last season, a good friend of mine displayed her outrageously ill-conceived social planning skills by getting married. I was therefore unable to watch the whole game, but did manage to catch the first 30 minutes in the hotel bar, during which time I thought it possible to gauge the final outcome.
Employing all my prophetic powers, I rightly predicted a defeat as we were 3-0 down by the time I left, conceding our first after just three minutes.
Notable only for Dean Ashton’s wondrous overhead kick, a listless display from ourselves got the thumping it deserved from the Champions-elect. Even when reduced to 10-men, United were comfortably able to score another – Michael Carrick ambling through our midfield to crack in a 25-yard effort and make it 4-1.
Historically, Old Trafford has not proved a happy hunting ground for West Ham, our Tevez-inspired final day escape notwithstanding. In our last 11 visits we have won just twice, losing the other nine and conceding a startling 32 goals during those defeats.
There is nothing to suggest that we won’t be on the end of another loss, except for myself, but I also once suggested that trifle, scones and toasted crumpets should be blended together to form an uber-dessert.
2. Injuries and Absentees
Ex-West Ham midfielder Michael Carrick is set to make a return this evening having played just 70 minutes of the season so far. Carrick’s timely interventions and measured distribution will be a welcome addition to the United midfield in the absence of Owen Hargreaves.
Their only other absentee is the mercurial Paul Scholes who remains sidelined with knee ligament damage.
Mark Noble is out for a month with a calf injury, Lucas Neill is laid up with a virus (or a hot chocolate and boxset of Desperate Housewives) and Carlton Cole is suspended.
Neill’s absence will allow James Collins to make his second appearance in a row – good news as far as I’m concerned as I thought he was excellent against Arsenal and is an altogether more accomplished centreback than Neill.
Noble for Mullins or Bowyer is more or less like for like, but Cole’s absence will be the most apparent. The absence of a target man to aim for with the many desperate clearances sure to be launched from our half this evening will only invite the next wave of pressure. I can’t see a towering Rio Ferdinand having much trouble out-jumping Bellamy.
Man United have had an unremarkable start to the season by their own high standards, having drawn three and lost one of their opening eight games.
If one is to go by the accepted logic that every season’s eventual champions can suffer a single spell of poor form along the way, it is conceivable that United can ill-afford any more unexpected setbacks if they are to retain their title.
A 1-1 draw with Newcastle on opening day has been followed by defeat at Anfield and further stalemates at Chelsea and more recently, Everton. Even were they to win their game in hand, United would remain outside the top four, a point behind Arsenal, two behind Chelsea and five behind Liverpool.
Darren Fletcher has been one of United’s more consistent performers this season and has profited from the number of central midfield injuries. He’s scored a few goals, busied himself in the middle of the park and will push Carrick for that central midfield role.
Ronaldo is yet to click into gear, instead concerning himself with hourly media updates as to his desire to stay in Manchester, or lack thereof. He does have a knack of scoring against us though, so expect him to get four before halftime.
Man U always seem to finish the season strongly and so won’t be too worried about League position pre-November, but they would certainly prefer more points in the bag before the prospect of tricky away ties to Arsenal, Villa and rejuvenated neighbours Man City, all of which come before December.
Luckily for them, they can look forward to the fillip of a resounding home victory against West Ham this evening.
4. Name Your Price
As with most things, football can be directly related to Star Wars. This may seem a rather strained analogy at best, but give it some thought.
Jamie Carragher is the Wedge Antilles of the Premiership - solid, dependable, often plays second fiddle to his best-friend-cast-as-saviour, but certainly pulls his weight.
Peter Kenyon is quite obviously football’s Bib Fortuna – sinister underling of an inter-galactic gangster who cruises the planet in his over-sized yacht and has a penchant for dancing girls.
Drawing this thesis to its most logical conclusion, it is now plain for all to see that Harry Redknapp is the footballing equivalent of Boba Fett – a ruthless mercenary with no hint of moral fibre who will quite literally do anything for money.
Redknapp’s move from the south coast to tottenham has been the story of the week and Harry has been quick to reveal his childhood leanings towards Spurs (he has previously done exactly the same in regard to both ourselves and Arsenal). Redknapp spoke of how a chance to manage “a big, big club” was too good to turn down. Presumably he hopes to do well at Spurs so that a big club comes in for him.
Redknapp will take charge tonight in the north London derby, having dashed back from Portsmouth where he graciously returned to receive the freedom of a city he walked out on days previously.
Pompey fans aside (who have already put up with Harry leaving them for arch-rivals Southampton, only to return 12-months later), the players he leaves behind must feel the most aggrieved, many of whom cited Redknapp as the main reason for signing and received assurances from him that he was there long term.
Pompey fans should not be surprised at Redknapp’s departure given his previous, but what is surprising is that someone is still yet to blend trifle, scones and toasted crumpets into a luxurious uber-dessert.
I was surprised the club did not contest Cole’s sending off on Sunday. It was a foolish challenge so late in the game, but an equally foolish decision from the ref. The fact that a straight red carries a three match ban as opposed to the single game incurred for two yellows, would be reason enough for an appeal you would think, but apparently not.
Although his aerial presence will be missed, his shooting boots will not. For all his physical work and hit-and-miss link up play, our most punctual striker rarely tests the opposition ‘keeper and that is a concern.
Unless Bellamy hits the heights, it’s puzzling to see where our goals will come from. We might get five from midfield all season, di Michele was nowhere on Sunday and it seems as though Freddie Sears will be a bit-part player this year thanks to his paper round commitments.
Diego Tristan is either in contention for Middlesbrough or has been cryogenically frozen in order to combat the evils of Simon Phoenix and shock the principled natives with his rambunctious behaviour in a post-apocalyptic world years from now. One of these likelihoods is true and the other the plot to Demolition Man, but I forget which.
The absence of a 20-goals-a-season man who can breathe unaided has been a dilemma at Upton Park for a few years now and an issue that remains continually unaddressed.
Cole’s forced omission until Portsmouth in mid-November will allow us to see what other options and combinations are available and should see Diego Tristan thawed out for some first team action. Whether the desired potency will be uncovered remains to be seen.
6. Ashton To Ashes
Dean Ashton’s Official website bares the deflating news that he is now unlikely to return before the end of the season. In less than three years with the club, Ashton will now have cumulatively missed nearly two full seasons through injury, and this at the tender age of 24.
Ashton is in danger of becoming a ‘sicknote’, for all his undeniable talent. He remains our most gifted striker and one of the few remaining centre forwards in the traditional mould, but his frequent visits to the treatment table are becoming increasingly worrisome.
It is all the more frustrating as no sooner do we have Bellamy back after a year of absence, than Ashton rules himself out for six months. Together and with a few games played in tandem, they have all the ingredients of a prolific strike partnership, but one that we may never see.
I have the uneasy feeling that years from now Ashton’s career will be viewed as one of injury-hit wasted potential, mirrored with a sharp upturn in profits for McVities.
7. Forza Hammers
Much like Sunday, not many of us are expecting a result tonight, but will be more interested in the manner in which we play.
I thought we did well for the majority of the game against Arsenal and was pleased to see us sticking to Zola’s policies rather than hoofing long balls forward whenever in possession.
A little more composure on the ball instead of attempted instantaneous one-touch football would yield further improvement. Arsenal showed that a quick turn and a little look-up will more often equate to retained possession, rather than a hurried first time pass to where you think a player is or anticipate he will be.
It’s painfully obvious that Faubert is a midfielder out of position and I don’t blame him for Sunday. I would expect to see Behrami in at right back tonight and although the same ‘out of position’ assessment could be made of him, I was surprised to learn recently that he has made more challenges and won more free-kicks than any other West Ham player this season.
Ordinarily we need Faubert to deliver from midfield and Etherington to do the same from the opposite flank, but crosses into the box tonight would go largely wasted what with our distinct lack of height sans Cole.
Presuming Zola sticks with 4-3-3, the pace of Bellamy, a bit more strength from di Michele and maybe the threat of some surging Etherington touchline play, well supported by three central midfielders, could provide us with a few chances over the course of 90 minutes.
Lots of running and chasing will be involved and so the bench will need to play it’s part, so Luis, if you’re reading, please leave the clogs at home.
Overall, I’d rather see Zola (left) stick to his guns and lose than go against his instincts and still lose. I like to believe his assertions that the results will come in time as long as we believe in our style, which is an undoubted improvement on that of the Curbishley era.
A couple of defeats to two of the best teams in Europe, suffered whilst trying to play football in the right way and without being on the wrong end of a hiding, could instill some of the character needed to turn this new system into a winning one.