West Ham United had the chance to squash all final rumblings of relegation worry last weekend against Sunderland, but it didn’t happen when Darren Randolph ran from the goalmouth, flailed at a desperate longball, and missed it.
Fabio Borini collected the loose ball and finished it to make it a 2-2 game with only added time remaining. It was a point added for the Hammers, but two dropped. West Ham still sit in 13th, nine points above the drop zone. With five games left, that should be enough to remain well clear.
But for manager Slaven Bilic, the difference between confidently striding into a secure mid-table position and limping to Premier League safety due to the incompetence of three teams in the drop zone could be vitally important. One option could lead to him searching for the innumerable missing pieces the Hammers need in the transfer market. The other could result in Bilic searching for a new job.
With Everton coming to the London Stadium on Saturday, it would be best to see improvements made to the lineup, proving Bilic’s ability to turn a poor week into a positive one. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely Bilic will drop Randolph for mistakes which cost the Hammers the game last week – despite similar mistakes by Adrian earlier in the year costing the keeper his everyday spot.
Instead, West Ham will be forced to change its defense and attack with Andy Carroll injured, missing his 16th match this season, and Sam Byram suspended after a red card.
Everton could push for a top-four spot – they sit only three points below Arsenal and Manchester United, and seven points behind Manchester City. Ronald Koeman’s side has picked up 13 points in seven matches since the start of March.
He does not seem to fear the trip to the London Stadium, either.
“We can show that there’s not that difference from home and away,” Koeman said. “It’s about keeping the way you play."
The way Everton plays can be epitomized by an exciting magic surrounding 18-year-old midfielder Tom Davies and Golden Boot contender Romelu Lukaku. Watching Davies play surely makes Hammers fans wish Bilic would give a chance to one of the many young options available.
Watching Lukaku play, however, may force some Hammers fans to turn around in their seats. In the Belgian striker’s 11 appearances against West Ham, he has nine goals and four assists. Lukaku is the Kryptonite to a Hammers side which has played less than Super Man-esque all season.
With a questionable backline and an even more questionable goalkeeping situation, it will be interesting how Bilic counters Lukaku. In his press conference Thursday, Bilic hinted about the idea of double teaming Lukaku when he is on the ball.
Without Carroll fit to play, it appears likely to see Diafra Sakho start for only the third time this season. After reports of a row – which Bilic assured did not take place – Sakho has a chance to prove himself from the first whistle on Saturday.
The loss of Carroll takes away a big target in the box. Against Sunderland last week, Snodgrass’ wild cross into the box from the far right found Carroll on the back post. The English striker mishit a half volley chance, but the ball careened perfectly into Andre Ayew’s path, and the Ghanaian tucked it away for the first goal.
Sakho must emulate a similar style in the box. If the Senegalese striker could add some pace to the front line, too, the loss of Carroll will not be felt very heavily. But the ability play through Sakho will be key as Cheikhou Kouyate will likely move back into defense and Michail Antonio is lost for the season. The solo runs both players offered will surely be missed when the attack is stagnant.
Still, Bilic should consider featuring Ashley Fletcher in the match, at least as a substitute. The 21-year-old forward practiced with the first team, and pulled a clever turn past James Collins in a drill.
The captain, Mark Noble, will be suspended for one final match after reaching 10 yellow cards. While Kouyate will slip back into defense while Byram is suspended, it’s a chance for Havard Nordtveit to return to the side in a defensive midfield role, along Edimilson Fernandes.
Nordtveit featured as a late substitute against Sunderland, but he could not help to maintain the 2-1 lead. If he starts, it will be the Norwegian’s first time since West Ham’s 5-0 FA Cup defeat to Manchester City.
But the involvement of the Hammers’ three attacking midfielders (Robert Snodgrass, Manuel Lanzini and Ayew) will be vital for the cause on Saturday. Ayew found space inside the box and made the most of it, slotting home past Jordan Pickford.
The three attacking midfielders need to control possession. Bilic wanted to stop service to Lukaku, and the best way to do that is to stop Everton from having the ball in positive positions.
The three of them need to complete passes inside the opposition’s half. Snodgrass failed three forward passes in Sunderland’s half last week, although still completed 88 percent of his total passes. Lanzini only completed 82 percent, and misplaced three passes inside Sunderland’s box. Ayew, though, only had one pass go array.
Winston Reid is back fit, but after missing five matches, he is unlikely to start. So, Jose Fonte and Collins will be in charge of limiting Lukaku’s presence in the middle. To either side of the center backs are Arthur Masuaku and, probably, Kouyate.
Masuaku has filled in well for the injured Aaron Cresswell, starting the past three games. But while Kouyate has the engine and determination to play at right back, he does lack the skill and may be exposed on the wing against Kevin Mirallas or Ademola Lookman.
The largest concern is between the sticks, though. Randolph was hard-done by for the first goal Sunderland scored, as he was backed into his own net by Victor Anichebe on a corner kick.
But the second goal conceded in the 90th minute was inexcusable, as he whiffed a punch on a desperation ball into the box. It is a ball that, between the center halves and the keeper, should be cleared without pressure. If the play doesn’t tidy up, the Hammers will have a much harder time against a much superior striker in Lukaku.
Adrian was dropped by Bilic for similar mistakes, and hasn’t played a Premier League match since the start of November. Bilic does not seem set to make a change, even though Randolph certainly cost West Ham three points.
Prediction: West Ham 0-2 Everton
The Hammers look set to be held scoreless by the Toffees for the second time this season. After fumbling a late lead to Sunderland, West Ham needs a result to end any worries surrounding the drop zone, especially with Tottenham and Liverpool still on the schedule. But that result is not going to come against a high-flying Everton side.