West Ham dropped its first two matches in the Premier League against Manchester United and Southampton. There’s a long way to go, but improvement was clearly shown against the Saints on Saturday as the Hammers battled back with 10 men to draw level at two before a late penalty lost it.
When West Ham lines up against League Two side Cheltenham in the Carabao Cup Wednesday, there are only two outcomes. The Hammers can take care of business when they should, or suffer an embarrassment in their third-straight away fixture.
The latter option, a loss or even a draw, is the last thing manager Slaven Bilic needs at this time, as the Mirror reports his job is already less than stable.
There will likely be a smattering of youth players on the pitch, though a Premier League 2 match against Tottenham Monday complicates availability. For Bilic, he'll have to tread a fine margin as to how many Academy prospects start. Without veteran presence, it could turn out similarly to Sam Allardyce’s strategy – or lack thereof – in cup matches. But with a right mix of fringe first teamers, West Ham can chalk up its first victory of the new campaign.
The Robins sit in 20th place in the fourth tier after starting their season with two losses and a win. Saturday, Cheltenham were topped 3-0 by Carlisle, and August 15 it was defeated 2-1 by Swansea City’s U-21 team.
Striker Mohamed Eisa leads the club with two goals this season – the only ones scored in league play – and Jordan Forster has both assists from defense.
It will be a different atmosphere for the Hammers at Whaddon Road, which has a capacity just over 7,000. But there should be fight in both teams after slow starts to each season. Cheltenham manager Gary Johnson implored his team to give maximum effort before a nationally televised game.
“This is a real chance to enhance their reputation, and they understand that, on a live TV (Sky Sports) game,” he told the official club website. “I’m sure [West Ham] will want a result too so it will be a cracking game. We don’t know the team they are picking, but they are all good players and I suspect they will be strong. Our players can prove to themselves that they can compete at that level, which will give them confidence going back into the league.”
There’s no real point in employing Javier Hernandez against a League Two team, as injury risks loom too large. The Mexican star impressed mightily against Southampton, scoring two rebound goals, but his efforts are better served against Premier League competition.
In his stead could be Diafra Sakho. The Senegalese forward has seen time as a substitute in both league fixtures, but a solid performance in the cup could prove his reliability. Last match, Sakho turned an Aaron Cresswell cross into a fine headed effort on goal. Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster did well to redirect it off the crossbar, but Hernandez was there to finish it.
20-year-old Toni Martinez started up top Monday for the Premier League 2 side, but could be available off the bench. Martinez scored twice in preseason this year, but hardly proved a steady option while on loan last year at Oxford United, scoring three times and adding two assists in nearly 900 minutes played. He did score twice for the Hammers last year in the EFL Trophy during a 4-2 loss to Coventry City.
A load of benched first teamers will make their way back onto the pitch against Cheltenham. Among them will be Edimilson Fernandes, Andre Ayew and Pedro Obiang. But two players left out of Monday’s Premier League 2 match against Tottenham are Sead Hakšabanović and Domingos Quina.
Hakšabanović, 18, is an exciting prospect and could prove valuable behind Manuel Lanzini in the pecking order as an attacking midfielder. The Hammers signed the Montenegro international this summer from Swedish side Halmstads BK, and Wednesday could be his debut. Last year, he scored four goals in 18 matches.
Quina, despite standing at 5-foot-8, fancies himself as a central midfielder. He does have experience as an attacking player and winger, too. Wednesday, alongside of Obiang, is a chance for the 17-year-old to prove he is capable of the physicality needed to defend. If Quina starts as a defensive midfielder, it will force Fernandes to the right wing, as Hakšabanović and Ayew will attack from the middle and left, respectively. Fernandes is capable of playing on the wing, though he is more experienced in the center of the pitch.
West Ham co-chairman David Gold confirmed on Twitter Cheikhou Kouyate will be included in the squad. After an injury during the summer, he could be set to make his season debut. He could start at center back or defensive midfield, but may feature off the bench as he recovers his match fitness.
After Joe Hart started the opening two matches of West Ham’s Premier League campaign, former No. 1 Adrian should have a chance in goal against Cheltenham. The Spaniard vowed to stay at the club and fight for his place in the team, so this match is the perfect opportunity to show his sturdiness.
Hart hasn’t been bad, but the defense as a whole has conceded seven goals in their first two matches. Hoping to close the ranks
will be a pair of players making season debuts.
Sam Byram should start at right back to give starter Pablo Zabaleta a break. The 23-year-old fullback has a chance to capitalize after Zabaleta committed a foul in the box which gifted Southampton a last-minute penalty last week.
Also, James Collins should see his first action of the year at center back. Angelo Ogbonna and Jose Fonte played against Southampton, and Winston Reid withdrew from the starting lineup before kickoff after hurting his calf in warmups. Bilic said the injury was not as bad as first feared and he expects the New Zealander back for the Huddersfield match September 11.
Pairing with Collins could be the 18-year-old Declan Rice, who has impressed as a defensive midfielder in his first two appearances of the season, including a start against Southampton. But central defense is his natural position, and he could prove a valuable resource if Reid proves to be out longer than expected.
While Aaron Cresswell performed well for the Hammers against Southampton, Arthur Masuaku should return to the starting lineup against Cheltenham. Masuaku and Cresswell both add a lot to the attacking game, but aren’t the steadiest defenders around.
Prediction: Cheltenham 1-3 West Ham
The Hammers should take care of business and reach the next stage of the EFL Cup. Sakho should chip in with a goal or two against a weaker defense. Still, it wouldn’t be West Ham unless it gives up a cheap goal to make things interesting.