Two potentially season-defining games lay in wait for the Blues in quick succession, starting this weekend with a visit from West Ham United. While all eyes may be on Tuesday’s huge Champions League match against Inter Milan, it’s the bread and butter of the league which will dominate our attention on Saturday.
Since our last league game – the forgettable defeat at the hands of Manchester City – the top of the Premier League has changed somewhat, with Manchester United overtaking us for the top spot and Arsenal completing what seems to be their 57th forced re-entry into the title race, with the Gunners level on points with us in third, albeit possessing a slightly inferior goal difference. Capitulation is therefore not an option against the not-so happy Hammers.
By all accounts it’s been nothing short of a woeful season for West Ham. Having finished 9th last time out, just two points off a Europa League qualifying place, Gianfranco Zola would have expected his side to sustain or push on up the table this campaign. As it is, they have struggled throughout, hanging around the bottom of the Premier League for the majority. They currently sit in 16th with 27 points, just three away from Wolves, Burnley and Hull, two ofwhom occupy relegation spots.
Wins have been rare for the Hammers, not least away from home where they have taken three points just once this season. Along with their five home wins, Zola’s side returned triumphantly from Molineux on the opening day of the campaign, beating Wolves 2-0 a hefty 211 days ago by the time the game on Saturday kicks off. Since then, they’ve recorded five draws and nine defeats in all competitions, scoring just nine goals in those fourteen games, and shipping 26.
They do have quality in their side though, let down by some shambolic defending at times. Their man between the sticks, Robert Green, has been largely impressive despite West Ham’s negative goal difference, and is many fans’ tip to take the number one shirt for England at this summer’s World Cup. Carlton Cole is also thought to have an outside chance of making the finals after some eye-catching performances, while the likes of Matthew Upson – JT’s defensive partner in England’s recent friendly against Egypt – Alessandro Diamanti and Valon Behrami have all had more than a few good games in a West Ham shirt.
One of West Ham’s major problems in recent seasons has been their inability to keep an entire squad – or anything near to full ranks – match fit throughout the season. Ahead of Saturday’s game, they could be missing up to six players. Zavon Hines, Luis Boa Morte, Calum Davenport and Herita Ilunga are all definitely out, while Benni McCarthy and Danny Gabiddon are doubts. Defender Manuel da Costa is suspended.
Fresh from reaching the FA Cup semi-finals yet again, Chelsea are near full-strength with the exception of a few key players. Petr Cech is still out, as is Ashley Cole, while José Bosingwa won’t play again this season after a setback in his return from a knee injury. Juliano Belletti also has a knee problem, but Yuri Zhirkov is back in training. Michael Ballack returns from suspension after his attack on Carlos Tevez in the Man City game.
Goals have been few and far between in the most recent meetings between the sides – if you exclude Frank Lampard’s three penalties in the 1-1 draw earlier this season – but we have managed to knock four past West Ham three times in the last eight times we have played them. Our last win against the Hammers was at Upton Park last season, when a solitary Salomon Kalou goal proved enough for the win. A single strike was also enough the last time we took three points against them at the Bridge, with Joe Cole’s 76th minute effort enough for the win in December 2007.
The last time West Ham recorded a win against Chelsea at SW6 was a game in which Zola played in. The legendary Italian was a 63rd minute substitute for Boudewijn Zenden, but by then Chelsea were already 2-1 down, having gone ahead through a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink penalty, only to be pegged back by goals from Jermain Defoe and Paolo di Canio. Zola scored on 74 to level matters, but a late di Canio goal sealed a 3-2 win for a Hammers side which included Cole and former Blue Scott Minto. John Terry was on the bench, with William Gallas and Robert Huth favoured instead.
Mark Clattenburg will be the man given the honour of keeping charge of the London derby this Saturday. The Tyne and Wear official has reffed three of our games this season, booking just five players (three for Chelsea) and sending-off none. He has also done three West Ham games this season, awarding a harsh penalty against them in a 3-3 draw with Hull back in November. In 32 games, he’s awarded five red cards and 83 yellows.
With Inter Milan looming, it is vital that we don’t lose focus for what is immediately ahead of us, a potentially tricky game against West Ham as we attempt to reclaim top spot in the Premier League. Manchester United play Fulham on Sunday at home, with both sides involved in mid-week action; United still coming back down to earth after an impressive 4-0 home win over AC Milan on Wednesday and the Cottagers returning to England after their tough away game against Juventus on Thursday night. Arsenal have a late kick-off away at Hull on Saturday, by which time we will have either pulled away from them, or left them an opening in the title race.
West Ham on Saturday, Inter on Tuesday. Two wins and we’re back on top of the world. Dropped points and European elimination? Don’t even think about it.