Stoke City FC travels to East London tomorrow to take on West Ham United at Upton Park.
The match is of paramount importance to West Ham, who currently sit 19th in the table, in the thick of the relegation battle.
When the two sides met last September the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Much has changed since then, notably a truly terrible run of form for the Hammers.
For its park, Stoke displayed respectable talent, particularly from talismanic midfielder and former Hammer Matthew Etherington.
However, despite Stoke’s impressive fall form and West Ham’s dismal end to 2010, West Ham enter this match in high spirits and in their best form of the season. Transfer additions Demba Ba, Wayne Bridge and Gary O’Neil have proven crucial in recent weeks for the Hammers—Ba has three goals in the last two games.
The return of Thomas Hitzlsperger from injury is another sign of hope for the Hammers. In his first full game for West Ham, Hitzlsperger helped the Irons demolish Liverpool 3-1 at Boleyn Ground.
The German midfielder balances West Ham’s team well—he is left-footed and attacks and distributes on the left, while Scott Parker, a right footed player, attacks and distributes on the right.
Parker was awarded the Barclay’s Player of the Month for February, and had this to say of his recent stellar form: “Obviously it’s not just me, it’s the team…I do honestly believe that we’ve got a good enough squad to get out of the predicament we’re in.”
With three strikers ahead of Parker and Hitzlsperger—probably Ba, Freddy Piquonne and Carlton Cole for tomorrow, given Robbie Keane’s and Victor Obinna’s injuries—and O’Neil and Bridge working the wings, West Ham coach Avram Grant has assembled a formidable attacking force.
Since acquiring his new signings at the end of the January transfer window, Grant has led his side to two league victories, one draw and one loss. In these four games West Ham United has scored nine goals—not too shabby.
West Ham’s midfield and defense managed to completely nullify the attacking threat of Liverpool’s stars as well as Blackpool’s Charlie Adam. If it can do so tomorrow against Stoke and continue their prolific goal-scoring, its hard to see West Ham losing.
But let’s not marginalize Stoke City’s contribution to the match. The side went on a great run through the fall and early winter, with Etherington and center back Robert Huth scoring regularly and are, at least on paper, the better team.
However, Stoke has fallen on hard times. Of its last eight matches, the side has won two, drawn one and lost five.
A win over Sunderland was followed by a loss to Birmingham. A win over Bolton preceded a loss to Fullham. Last week, Stoke drew to West Bromwich Albion, a team in the midst of its own relegation battle.
During this poor run of form, Etherington has been silent. He has only found the back of the net once since December 4th. The same holds true for Huth, who has only scored twice since last December. Since November 13th of 2010, Stoke has won but a single game without a goal from either Huth or Etherington.
Of course, we have to consider that a team like Stoke may well see a match against West Ham as the perfect opportunity to show its meddle and to prove its decent form was not a fluke.
But no matter how good Etherington is on his best day, it’s hard to imagine him proving too much for both Hitzlsperger and Parker to control, let alone West Ham defenders Matthew Upson and James Tomkins, both of whom have played well as of late.
The solution for tomorrow's game is simple: if West Ham manages to nullify the threat presented by Huth and Ethernington, they win. And the new look West Ham is a team that can do that without too much trouble.
Given West Ham’s momentum and fighting spirit, and Stoke’s defeated attitude of late, it’s hard to image the latter will walk away form Upton Park with three points.
Prediction: West Ham 2-0 Stoke City