As the race for promotion enters its final phase, the last the two months will provide stern tests for all involved in the Championship shake-up. This weekend provides Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United with a daunting trip to face heroic Carling Cup finalists Cardiff City.
Allardyce’s troops, with one defeat in eight, have recovered from their catastrophic defeat away at Ipswich Town with a good deal of praise, showing undeniable character in matches against Millwall, Southampton and Blackpool where they were reduced to ten men. The Hammers ability to stay unbeaten in those matches, gaining seven points out of nine, has given the side renewed vigour and confidence as they enter the crucial final period of the season. New January signings Nicky Maynard and Ricardo Vaz Te have bedded into side well registering goals in the process, whilst Hammers fans wait with baited breath for the introduction of Ravel Morrison.
Unfortunately, the 0-0 draw with London rivals Crystal Palace did not live up to the performances of the previous three matches and high expectations of the Upton Park faithful; however, it was clear to see the effects of previous exertions as the team’s fatigue showed.
Allardyce and his side came in for unfair criticism after the draw which leaves them in a strong position – 2nd in the table a point behind, and with a game in hand over, leaders Southampton. Big Sam’s ability to instil a strong resolve within his side is an attribute that is clearly evident and cannot be under estimated. Over the past few years, the Hammers have struggled under previous regimes to establish a winning mentality that ultimately brings success. The early season results highlighted the difficult transition period as the Hammers conceded costly last minute goals at home to Leeds United, Ipswich Town and Sunday’s opponents Cardiff. However, under the tutelage of Big Sam, an effective winning brand of football has been established, though the latter continuously, and tediously, remains one poor result from the accusations of ‘long-ball football’.
Instead, what is true of Allardyce is that he has transformed West Ham into a side that bears few characteristics to the one that left the Premier League last year. The Hammers, under Big Sam, are a strong, organised and hard-working unit that produce a style of football that is not exactly to the Arsenal “Invincibles” standard of 2003/04 but hardly the Wimbledon style of the 1980s either.
Indeed in recent weeks the Hammers have proven the stereotypes of Allardyce’s style of football as false, producing a string of stylish performances collecting positive results on the way. Impressively, West Ham boast the league’s best away record, collecting 30 points on their travels, a complete transformation from a side that claimed only three away wins in the previous two seasons. This stat is one few fans would have dreamed of after the past years of dire away showings.
Sunday’s lunchtime visit to the Cardiff City Stadium will provide the Irons with the chance to continue their great away form and not only avenge their opening day defeat but highlight their Premier League credentials. Yet City’s strong home form has provided the basis of their promotion push and Carling Cup run defeating leaders Southampton and Premier League Blackburn Rovers in the process. The distraction of the Carling Cup final as seen the Bluebirds slip away in previous weeks and makes Sunday’s crunch game crucial for both sides.
Allardyce, who has taken away his squad to warmer climates this week, is left with the dilemma of whether to bring captain Kevin Nolan back into his recently undefeated side. Arguably, the Irons have performed better without their major summer signing, who is yet to rediscover the form he produced last season at Newcastle United. Nolan’s suspension, attributed to the red card he received against Millwall, has resulted in the upturn in form of stand-in captain Mark Noble who has produced a number of virtuoso performances in his absence.
Nevertheless, Nolan has shown the ability to be a priceless match winner on a number of occasions in scoring single goal winners against Brighton and Hove Albion, Coventry City and Doncaster Rovers. This ability was sorely missed in the home match against Palace and this is sure to encourage Big Sam to reintroduce his Captain back into the fold.
Big Sam has often deployed Nolan behind a lone front man away from Upton Park and the number 4 has justified this selection on a number of occasions producing his best form away from the home faithful. In fact of the seven goals Nolan has scored for the Irons this season, four have been scored away securing crucial victories.
Nolan has previously shown the ability to be a catalyst for success emphasised during his periods at Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle, where he achieved promotion to the Premier League with both clubs. Big Sam will clearly been keen to see his captain recapture this form, as the next few weeks will provide Nolan with the opportunity to demonstrate his unquestionable ability in testing high profiled fixtures. If Nolan is to regain the form that saw him score 12 Premier League goals last term, West Ham and Big Sam will surely be toasting a promotion if not a Championship winning side at the end of April.
The hectic run-in for West Ham, which will begin in South Wales on Sunday, also sees them visit Leeds United and Leicester City as well as entertain promotion hopefuls Reading, Birmingham City and Middlesbrough.
Allardyce and Hammers fans will look to their big named players such as Nolan to perform to their maximum in order to remain on course for a swift return to the top division. This pressure will only be increased if promotion rivals Southampton, Reading, and Blackpool and Birmingham gain victories before their clash on Sunday.
However, if victory is achieved in South Wales on Sunday, West Ham will take a giant step towards a return to the Premier League and inflict serious damage to Cardiff’s chances of achieving automatic promotion. Big Sam will be hoping, as all Hammers fans, that the return of captain Kev this Sunday will be the tonic for achieving their tenth victory on the road.