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Middlesbrough vs. West Ham: Match Preview

The Hammers can earn two-straight victories, closing the gap with the top half of the table.

West Ham United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

As the fallout between West Ham continues with Dimitri Payet, the Hammers’ first team prepares for a match amid the media circus surrounding Payet. Reports of the Frenchman getting kicked out of the team’s WhatsApp group chat, of a brick being thrown through his car window, and Marseille pulling out of a deal for Payet attracts much of the attention.

But it is players like Andy Carroll, Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio who help pull the focus back to the pitch, not what is going on behind the scenes. All three were critical in West Ham’s 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace last weekend, a statement of what the club can do even if Payet is not on the pitch.

The Hammers must prove that performance was no fluke when facing Middlesbrough on Saturday at the Riverside Stadium. To do so, it will have to be another total team effort.

Opposition Outlook:

Middlesbrough are in a rough patch of the season, sitting in 16th place in the Premier League, with one win in their last seven matches. In five of those matches, the Boro failed to score.

The signing of Patrick Bamford proves the club’s intent to score more goals, and the 23-year-old striker should be available off the bench on Saturday. Bamford scored 19 goals for Middlesbrough while on loan at the club in 2014/15.

Boro attacker Gaston Ramirez and right back Antonio Barragan are both injured for the match against West Ham, while defender Daniel Ayala is serving a three-match ban after his red card against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup.

Middlesbrough will lean on Álvaro Negredo to supplement the attack against the Hammers. The 31-year-old Spanish forward leads the club with five goals and four assists.

The Attack:

Carroll suffered a whiplash injury against Crystal Palace, but manager Slaven Bilic insists it did not happen on the striker’s bicycle kick goal. The whiplash injury should not keep Carroll out of the match on Saturday, and his inclusion in the team is vital.

West Ham United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Antonio proved his all-around ability against Crystal Palace. The 26-year-old started at right wing back before moving to striker as part of a 4-4-2 formation. The switch to the new formation in the second half changed the match, and Antonio added all three assists.

Despite Antonio’s success last week at striker, it is more likely for him to start as a winger on Saturday, with the option in the back of Bilic’s mind to move him to striker alongside Carroll if the Hammers are struggling to form much of an attack.

The Midfield:

Lanzini showed he can play wide left as a part of a 4-4-2 formation, but the Argentinian attacking midfielder has more experience in the center of the park. Bilic will likely start him as a center attacking midfielder, with Antonio wide to his left.

The width is key in this formation. While Lanzini, Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble control the middle of the pitch, it is Feghouli and Antonio who should supply the most chances for Carroll in the box, if not scoring themselves. Antonio leads West Ham with eight goals, while Feghouli scored his first goal as a Hammer last week against Crystal Palace.

Antonio and Feghouli completed two take-ons each against Crystal Palace, while Antonio completed four of his six crosses. Feghouli only completed one of his five crosses, but has shown improvement since he arrived in the summer from Valencia.

Feghouli has been linked with moves to Italy’s Serie A, but has expressed his desire to stay at West Ham and give his all. His all is needed after the loss of Payet and the difficulty West Ham have faced thus far in signing a new winger. Bids for Robert Snodgrass have not moved Hull City towards selling.

“I haven’t played that much in recent months, and I must say that I thought adapting to English football would be much harder, but it shows that I must be fit and adapted to the game,” Feghouli told the club site regarding his recent form.

“I scored the other day and the coach knows he can count on me. I’m ready to play every week, and hopefully I will stay clear of injuries and help the Club move up the table.”

Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang continue to start in the central midfield while Cheikhou Kouyate is away at the Africa Cup of Nations. Captain Noble struggled with passing at the start of the match against Crystal Palace, but still managed to complete 78 percent by the final whistle.

Obiang was as sturdy as ever in defense, winning 60 percent of his tackles and adding two clearances.

The Defense:

Bilic’s decision to take off Angelo Ogbonna for Sam Byram at the half against Crystal Palace proved to be a good one. The four-defender formation worked against the Eagles, and Byram was strong in the defensive half as well as going forward.

West Ham United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Collins could start once again for the Hammers, leaving Ogbonna the odd man out. Collins had nine clearances and one blocked shot against Palace. Winston Reid also impressed with 10 clearances.

Likely facing Negredo and Cristhian Stuani, the Hammers should comfortably deal with both strikers’ size. Reid and Collins both are strong in the air. Of Collins’ nine clearances, seven were headed, while Reid had another five headed clearances.

Prediction: Middlesbrough 0-2 West Ham

The Hammers have what it takes to push towards the top half of the table. West Ham are only two points behind 9th place Stoke City.

With a healthy Andy Carroll, the Hammers can put away a struggling Middlesbrough side. West Ham’s defense should keep its second clean sheet in a row when facing the lowest scoring Premier League team this season, with 17 goals.

All stats compiled from squawka.com.