1. Duelling Duality
And so West Ham’s traditionally contrary approach to football continues apace.
Having failed to beat an average tottenham side at home on Monday night, we then go and take a deserved point off title-contenders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and spurn a glorious chance to claim all three at the death.
It’s this long-established club trait that habitually confounds us all: to rekindle the damp embers of hope, just as we are prepared to resign ourselves to consistent failure and top-flight oblivion.
While results like this do no harm to our Premiership credentials, they do little for our blood pressure.
Saturday evening provides us with our next opportunity to fritter away the chance of building on an impressive result, as young pretenders Aston Villa arrive in east London.
Villa have established themselves as the team most capable of breaking into the top four this season, much to the annoyance of Daniel Levy and his deluded minions.
Martin O’Neill’s undoubted management skills combined with the maturation of recent youthful purchases and consistent squad additions in recent years have lead to the advent of a competitive and competent squad.
Experience has been blended successfully with youth and players approaching their peak, leading to many plaudits this season, not least from the England manager.
Fabio Capello recently proclaimed that "the Aston Villa players are my future", citing Ashley Young, Gareth Barry, Gabriel Agbonlahor and James Milner. Young and Agbonlahor have both deservedly been included in recent squads and Gareth Barry is the only player to have featured in all ten of Capello’s games in charge.
The astute purchase of goalkeeper Brad Friedel in the summer combined with the in-form Martin Laursen have given Villa a capable backline, shielded by the experienced Stilian Petrov. Barry’s dream of Champions League football may yet be realised at Villa Park and the recent additions of Steve Sidwell and James Milner have improved the depth of Villa’s midfield.
These last two signings are all the more significant in that they have reduced Nigel Reo-Coker to the periphery where he can dance like a twat on the sidelines, doing ‘the running man’ in pursuit of his fast-fading hopes of an international career.
It’s Aston Villa’s attacking potency that has caught the eye recently, however. Martin O’Neill might be forgiven a moment of premature senility when recently comparing Ashley Young to Lionel Messi, but Young has certainly proven to be a great signing (another fine one we missed out on) and is increasingly looking an international player.
Both he and Agbonlahor have pace to burn and that will prove our greatest threat at the weekend, particularly if we press forward too zealously and leave space in behind - I can’t see Lucas Neill catching a cold, let alone Ashley Young. Again, it will be Zola’s ability to surreptitiously sellotape sausages onto the back of Young’s shirt that will prove key.
Marlon Harewood looks eerily contented with a place on the Villa bench.
3. Flawed To Big Four
Thanks to Arsenal’s stuttering season, Aston Villa now find themselves in 4th spot and have already beaten the Gunners at The Emirates. Wenger’s band of espresso-sipping aristocrats visit Villa Park on Boxing Day (or ‘St Stephens Day’ for those Irish readers) in a match prematurely being tagged as ‘winner takes all’.
O’Neill will see that as a great opportunity to put further daylight between his own team and 5th place heading into the New Year. Combine this with his decision to rest many of the first team for Wednesday night’s comprehensive UEFA Cup defeat to Hamburg (thereby sacrificing qualification as group winners) and there will be a great determination to take three points from The Boleyn on Saturday evening, sustaining his side’s recent momentum.
Wenger and O'Neill give their verdict on how far Kieron Dyer will get onto the pitch on his comeback before incurring a season-ending injury.
4. January Sale
As the window approaches, an icy wind of unwanted change continues to blow through Upton Park as rumours persist about the prospect of high profile departures.
Whilst warming our defensive cockles on Sunday, Matthew Upson’s imperious form against Chelsea also served to further highlight his value to several competitors and Herita Ilunga’s ball skills have caught the attention of many an NBA team.
The real issue here though is not the sale of assets, but that of the club as a whole. Press reports regarding the monetary health of Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson and the club have died down of late, bar the obligatory generalities – ‘financial strain’, ‘troubled club’, ‘piss-stained bin men’ etc.
It is universally acknowledged that BG’s piggy bank has suffered a not inconsiderable bout of bulimia in recent months and there is little hope on the horizon.
The sale of established first team players will almost certainly condemn us to the Championship next year and make us an even less enticing investment for would-be buyers, before having even factored in those penny-pinching under-performers up in Sheffield.
I can see the sense in selling up now while we are still a going concern with a decent squad, regularly high attendances and with our Premiership status still in our own hands.
5. Prophet Before Profit
Such is the far-reaching influence of this blog that no sooner have I finished writing the above than West Ham vice chairman, Asgeir Fridgeirsson, announces that the club have become receptive to enquiries.
“We have been reviewing the assets and as part of the process, we’ve signed a non-disclosure form with several parties.”
This jargon means that the Board has sent data on its debt levels, income, expenditures and salary ratios to the potential bidders, who are not allowed to reveal this info to anyone else.
It has been suggested that this is merely an exercise for Gudmundsson to gauge the value of the club in the current market in order in re-jig his assets accordingly, but there has to be more to it than that.
My knowledge of big business tells me that press releases are often one or two steps behind the proposed reality and from our standpoint, the sooner matters are concluded for the good of the club, the better. This same business acumen also tells me that Tesco currently have a 2 for 1 offer on Jammie Dodgers, so I’d get down there if I were you.
Villa’s visit last year was the final game of the season, an inconsequential affair and consequently an open and entertaining match.
On a glorious summer afternoon, Nobby Solano put us one up with the last goal to be scored direct from a free-kick by a West Ham player for the next thousand years. Villa drew level courtesy of Ashley Young before claiming the lead via Gareth Barry.
The prospect of the end of the season and a loosening of not only Dean Ashton’s dietary regime but also his fat pants, promptly spurred our striker into action and he levelled with a fine finish from outside the box with minutes remaining.
Despite all this, it was a game most memorable for King Pantsil - his illegal and relentless kicking of Nigel Reo-Coker for the entire match a commendable approach which went completely unnoticed by the ref. KP then went on a deserved solo lap of the pitch at the final whistle.
Generally speaking, honours have been fairly even between the two teams in recent years with an inordinate amount of draws – twelve out of the last eighteen games. Villa have had the better of the last few years, beating us on both our last two visits to Villa Park whereas we have not registered a victory against them since a 2-1 away win in early 2006.
'Your Latin courtship of the media is utterly bewitching. Kiss me, Jose...'
7. The Battle For Middle Earth
Despite Curbishley publicly bemoaning the fact that Zola has been afforded the opportunity to field consistent sides, our midfield has rarely been the same in consecutive games.
I thought that Zola’s selection against Chelsea (Behrami, Parker, Noble, Collison) provided us with a nice balance and was the most useful midfield unit seen so far this year.
Parker picked up the ‘man-of-the-match’ award for his effective disruptiveness, and his inability to get forward (which involves running in straight lines) was complimented well by Noble, who provided Bellamy with his goal-scoring chance.
Valon Behrami seems capable of running all day, his high work-rate warranting a regular start and endearing him to the fans, and this blog has often touted the merits of fielding Jack Collison.
There was nothing in the young Welshman’s performance on Sunday to dissuade us and I'm pleased to see him sign a new five year deal. He should regularly start matches before he gets too old and jaded to run headlong at defenders, spurning the simple pass.
There is no-one on the fringes who should oust any of these four. Matty Etherington has flattered to deceive after a strong start and Julien Faubert is proving the biggest waste of money since I bought a particularly expensive pair of bright orange Travel Fox trainers back in the mid-90’s, which in hindsight resembled orthopaedic shoes for visually-impaired drunks.
8. Congestion Charge
I can’t remember a season where the table has looked so tight so close to Christmas. There are only 20 points separating Liverpool in top spot from Sunderland in the relegation zone and there is not a gap of more than three points between any two consecutive teams from 3rd to 18th .
A contributory factor is the inability to string together consistent results at home, which can perhaps be attributed to many sides becoming more willing to adopt a Boltonian approach on the road.
Liverpool, Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal have all been guilty of dropping points they would normally be expected to claim and overall this trend is reflected in the negligible difference between large swathes of the table.
This has enabled several sides to endure a poor run without losing touch of the pack (ourselves included) and will allow teams to push up the league on the back of a few wins. It has also spawned the looming proviso that this year’s relegation battle may be more cluttered than ever.
If that is to be the case then every game really will matter and we can ill-afford to throw points away against teams we should be beating, as we have done thus far. The safety net of unexpected draws away to the big boys is full of holes.
Yes, I know all nets are full of holes, but these holes are getting bigger by the minute, the net fibres receding quicker than my hairline in order to illustrate this strained analogy.
9. Christmas Cheer
In the absence of any light-hearted relief last week, Paul Ince was sacked on Tuesday!
10. Escape to Victory?
Thanks in part to HeadHammer Shark’s contagious lethargy and my plans to drink my own bodyweight in gravy this Christmas, this shall be the final preview of 2008. In light of this, allow me to bid you all good tidings and all the associated seasonal merriment.
By way of half-arsed compensation, I have painstakingly prepared the following:
Aston Villa aside, our remaining fixtures of the calendar year are a trip to Portsmouth on Boxing Day and the visit of Stoke on the 28th.
The Portsmouth game is one I reckon we can win. Their drubbing at the hands of Newcastle on Sunday gives us hope, as does the fact that their holding midfielder, Lassana Diarra, is off to Real Madrid in January and will be loathe to risking injury.
Stoke City at home is one of those games with ‘humiliating frustration’ written all over it. I was planning on going, but am pleased to say that I will now be in northern France - coincidentally allowing me to retrieve the balls from Boa Morte’s efforts ‘on goal’.
(Only joking, Luis – I’m still rooting for you to score… Go for it, you crack-fuelled maniac!!)