West Ham can take a step away from the Premier League for a moment. Currently, after Sunday’s away draw against Manchester United, the Hammers sit in 16th, but still only one point from the relegation zone.
This Wednesday, West Ham can go to Old Trafford once again, but without any fear of the drop. Yes, it’s a quarterfinal tie and everyone loves a cup run, but this match can be more about gaining confidence than it is about advancing to the next round. Although, that confidence will come with a victory and a place in the EFL Cup semifinals.
The Hammers are in the midst of a grueling League schedule. They should have escaped White Hart Lane with at least a point, but Tottenham pulled that match out of the bag. West Ham did well to earn a point against the Red Devils on Sunday, with much thanks to Darren Randolph’s man of the match performance. After Wednesday, the Hammers must weather Arsenal and Liverpool before they are clear of the League’s big guns.
Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini are suspended for the match after picking up their fifth yellow card of the season on Sunday.
Jose Mourinho has rotated heavily in the past for cup matches, but Slaven Bilic still expects a strong side for Manchester United, including Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved how lethal he can be given the chance. The Swedish striker finished off a superb ball from Pogba to tie the match at one. He made the most of James Collins’ lack of concentration, beating the Welshman into the box to meet Pogba’s lofted ball and beat Darren Randolph with a glancing header.
It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly how Bilic will elect to rotate his team. One thing is for sure, though, and that is Diafra Sakho will not be part of the squad. After his goal on Sunday, he suffered a hamstring injury likely to keep him out for about four weeks.
That leaves just about every other striker available for West Ham on Wednesday, but for me, it should be a pairing of André Ayew and Ashley Fletcher. West Ham’s record signing featured off the bench on Sunday, and should be completely fit for the rematch.
Fletcher had some good moments off the bench against his former club on Sunday. The 21-year-old nearly bagged the winner, but David de Gea kept him out. Moments before, he did miss an open look at goal. He dribbled, and the tight angle he found himself in made de Gea’s job much easier.
Simone Zaza and Andy Carroll could appear on Wednesday. Carroll nears a return, but is more likely to feature off the bench, if at all. Bilic insisted that Zaza would earn playing time based on training performance, and he would not keep the Italian out based on the loan clause turning him into a full transfer at 14 matches for the club. Regardless of what Bilic says, I doubt he will use Zaza much more for fear of triggering the £17m full transfer.
Again, it is hard to know how much Bilic will want to rotate the squad. The Hammers do play again on Saturday, so it is a quick turnaround following Sunday and Wednesday matches.
It’s a safe bet to see Aaron Cresswell in the team after such solid play of late. The 26-year-old even held his own in a mismatch against Ibrahimovic on Sunday. Mark Noble seemed a step slow at times, but as captain will likely keep his place, as will Pedro Obiang as an anchor for the defense.
Obiang’s passing was not as crisp as usual, only completing 71%. But his defense was key. The Spanish holding midfielder was all over the pitch, completing 11 tackles, winning 80% of aerial duels, clearing 20 balls and intercepting six passes.
Dropping Dimitri Payet and Michail Antonio could take away from a lot of West Ham’s attacking strength, so at least one of them may still be in the squad. It would be good to see Sofiane Feghouli given an extended chance, but in this three defender formation, Antonio surely offers more in the defensive part of the game.
Edimilson Fernandes has been exciting to watch this season. The Swiss-international may have loftier ambitions than playing for West Ham, but should be featured while a player in East London. He has performed well previously in wing back roles, but by trade he is a natural central midfielder. This could be a good opportunity to see his control in the center of the park, and perhaps he can score another goal. The 20-year-old scored against Chelsea last round.
Randolph saved a point for the Hammers on Sunday. It will likely be enough to remain as the primary Premier League goalkeeper, leaving Adrian with cup duty. The Spaniard has a chance to regain the confidence of Bilic before Randolph is entrusted between the sticks against Arsenal.
The other three defensive positions are a lock. With Winston Reid returning, Collins can return to the bench after being badly caught out on Ibrahimovic’s goal.
Elsewhere, Angelo Ogbonna improved his form after a shaky performance against Tottenham. The Italian defender stood out for the Hammers with six tackles, three interceptions, 18 clearances and three blocks. That included a spectacular lunging block to stop Ibrahimovic a chance at goal late in the second half.
Cheikhou Kouyate deserves to stay in his role, too. The Senegalese international had five tackles, nine clearances and one block on Sunday.
Prediction: Manchester United 1-1 West Ham — The Hammers win in penalties.
If Adrian has one thing above Randolph, it’s his penalty performance. Who could forget his winner against Everton in the FA Cup?
If Payet and Antonio are rested, West Ham may be lacking in the attacking movement needed to put more than one past the Red Devils. But with a sturdy back three and support from Obiang and Cresswell, Manchester United will find a tough time putting too many past the Hammers.
All stats compiled from squawka.com