West Ham United will have virtually a full squad available for their attempt to stop Manchester City winning the league, with the only absentee Marco Borriello, who’s only played twice since arriving on loan from Roma anyway. City will be without Sergio Aguero as he continues to struggle with his groin injury which means Manuel Pellegrini is almost certain to go with a 4-2-3-1 rather than a 4-4-2. They will also be without the pace of Jesus Navas on the right and the long-term victim Matija Nastasic.
When there’s nothing else left to cling to, fans turn to destiny and who – other than those of a City persuasion – could fail to be tickled by the thought of Stewart Downing (bought by Liverpool in 2011 for £20m, sold by Liverpool in 2013 for £5m) crossing for Andy Carroll (bought by Liverpool in 2011 for £35m, sold by Liverpool in 2013 for £15m) to score the goal that wins Liverpool the league?
Given that Downing has managed just two assists all season, the chances of him fulfilling his part of the deal are minimal, but Carroll has looked in decent form recently, even if his 11 starts this season have yielded only two goals. Assuming his heading ability represents his main threat – and 15% of West Ham’s goals this season have come directly from headers – City are not a team especially vulnerable in the air: they’ve only let in five headed goals this season – 13.5% of their total, the sixth lowest proportion in the league.
THE MIDDLE OF MIDFIELD
As for any opponent of City, the key for West Ham will be to try to nullify David Silva, whose vision and movement have been vital to City’s attacking thrust this season. The problem for Mark Noble and Matt Taylor – assuming they retain their places from Saturday’s win over Tottenham – is that while looking after Silva they can leave gaps for Yaya Toure who, after a slight dip in form in the middle of the season, has returned to his very best in recent weeks.
He is a genuinely awesome footballer, a calm and precise passer and finisher who is also a rapid and powerful physical presence. Part of Kevin Nolan’s duties at the front of midfield will be to try to track his runs, but it’s hard to see how he can both do that and continue to get forward to try to pick up on Carroll’s knockdowns.
Whether Pellegrini selects Javi Garcia or the more attack-minded but less defensively secure Fernandinho alongside Toure, City should be able to take control of midfield and dominate possession as a result.
When City were beginning to look a little anxious against Aston Villa on Wednesday, it was forward surges by Pablo Zabaleta that set up the first two goals, and he’d already set up a good chance for Samir Nasri in the first half.
That means significant defensive work for Mohamed Diame, if he is again deployed on City’s left, while the reluctance of Downing to track back on the other side means there may be opportunities there for the full-back – whether it’s Aleksandr Kolarov or Gael Clichy – to get forwards. Kolarov is the more attacking of the two and it’s easy to imagine him, whether starting or coming off the bench, operating under cover of Zabaleta’s recent excellence to add to his one goal and seven assists this season.
City have met West Ham three times already this season – once in the league and then in the two legs of the Capital One Cup semi-final, and it doesn’t make pretty reading for Sam Allardyce’s side who have lost all three games, conceded twelve goals and scoring only one, never able to get to grips with the movement and trickery of Aguero and Alvaro Negredo.
The only two possible pluses for them this time are that City may be nervous – although anxiety eventually became a 4-0 win on Wednesday – and that Dzeko is a forward who relies more on strength than finesse and so may be easier for their back four to handle.
City are 1.14 to win and 2.00 even with a two-goal handicap, which feels too short to be worthwhile (in fact, it be worth backing West Ham at 1.70 with a three-goal head start).
The best value is probably 1.83 for them to win to nil against a side that has scored only 15 away goals this season, the fourth worst record in the division.