West Ham’s Declan Rice (left) vies for the ball with Southampton’s Nathan Redmond
Next week, West Ham will make the trip to Croatia to take on Dinamo Zagreb, but in a sense the journey begins this weekend against Southampton.
The Premier League fixture represents a pushing-off point for a two-week run that starts with the Hammers’ debut outing in the Europa League, takes in back-to-back clashes with Manchester United in the league and Carabao Cup, includes a Premier League trip to Leeds, and ends with the visit of Rapid Vienna.
Much was made of West Ham’s opening two games of the new season, resounding victories over Newcastle (4-2) and Leicester (4-1), with the most recent outing against Crystal Palace acting as a minor reality check.
The 2-2 draw saw David Moyes’ side slip from top spot in the Premier League to second, though only Tottenham have a perfect record after three league matches, with West Ham’s goal difference putting them above prospective title contenders Man United, Chelsea and Liverpool in the early running.
Given their so far brief but nevertheless impressive form, the Hammers should certainly be eyeing a win in this game away to the Saints, with Ralph Hasenhuttl’s team having so far recorded a loss to Everton and draws against Man United and Newcastle – though their record 8-0 thrashing of Newport County in the Carabao Cup was a rare clinic.
Naturally, that may seem an overly simple way of looking at the upcoming fixture, in a competition in which results follow form infrequently enough to amount to genuine unpredictability. However, if West Ham are to build upon last season’s sixth-placed finish, this is the type of game that they must win – especially after a missed opportunity against a very beatable Palace last time out.
That need for a win is enhanced by the match’s positioning in West Ham’s season. The next couple of weeks will give some clear indications of how well the east London outfit will deal with the pressures of competing across four fronts this year.
It is important for Moyes’ players to pick up three points here against a team they beat 3-0 and with whom they drew 0-0 last term, as a potential cushion in case the Carabao Cup tie against Man United and the meeting with Zagreb in any way dull the Hammers in their Premier League matches against the Red Devils and Leeds.
The deadline day arrivals of attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic and the more defensive-minded Alex Kral have helped to add a much-needed depth to Moyes’ squad, increasing the Scot’s ability to rotate and hopefully decreasing the impact of cup ventures on the team’s league form.
The signing of Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma late in the window should also prove timely, and the France centre-back could get his first run out against Southampton. The same could be said of Zouma’s compatriot Alphonse Areola – the PSG loanee is yet to feature for the Hammers despite arriving ahead of the new season – but it is possible that the goalkeeper will be saved for the Europa League and domestic cups for the time being.
West Ham players celebrate beating Southampton to secure European football
Even with this improved depth, perspective is needed; if successful cup runs domestically and in Europe see West Ham finish closer to 10th than fourth in the Premier League this season, on balance that would still represent an encouraging and memorable campaign.
As the collective standard of West Ham’s squad continues to improve, the increasingly frequent addition of international players will also affect the overall freshness of those available to Moyes, even in a minor way.
The impending run of games will be enlightening as to which kind of season West Ham end up having, but so will their ability, or failure, to deal with Southampton.
The club’s 3-0 home win over the Saints on the final day of last season secured Europa League football for West Ham. This weekend, a victory over Southampton could again set up their European adventure – just in a slightly different way.
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