LONDON – At the time we did not realize it, but Arsenal 0, West Ham 2 on the opening day of the season was a sign of things to come for both clubs.
Arsenal, we had mistakenly believed, would push on from being a serial third- or fourth-place finisher, and make a realistic title challenge. West Ham would . . . well, be West Ham, ending up mid-table despite the arrival of Slaven Bilic as Sam Allardyce’s successor.
Normal service was soon resumed with the Gunners, who are, as usual, doing what it takes to finish third or fourth for the 11th consecutive year as Leicester and Tottenham are involved in the most unlikely of challenges to be champion of the Premier League. Arsenal travels to Upton Park Saturday to play a West Ham team with not a comfortable half-way position in its sights, but Europe — maybe even the Champions League.
In West Ham’s ideal world, its first competitive game at its new home, the Olympic Stadium, will be a European tie, probably in the Europa League, which could be secured either by its league position or winning the F.A. Cup — the Hammers play Manchester United in a quarterfinal replay next Wednesday.
If Leicester is the fairy tale story of the past eight months, West Ham’s season is set for a similar happy ending. Bilic was well liked by fans during his season and a half as a player in 1996-1997, but the way he has transformed West Ham into an exciting, successful side with outstanding individuals has put the Croat on the path to legendary status.
While Allardyce laid the foundations, Bilic has taken the team to another level thanks to the arrival last summer of some inspired transfer dealings, particularly Dimitri Payet for an almost giveaway £10.7 million from Marseille.
Payet is 29 and it remains a mystery why it has taken him so long to show the form he has for West Ham this season. His passing, intelligence, movement and skill are a joy to behold, but as much as anything it is the France midfielder’s free-kicks that have put him in the spotlight.
Lionel Messi may remain the dead-ball king, but Payet’s technique has made English observers wonder whether Isaac Newton’s law of gravitation needs updating. He has scored five goals from free-kicks, none better than last Saturday’s against Crystal Palace, which put a seven-man defensive wall in place to stop Payet’s effort. Nice try, guys.
Payet’s shot must have had a curve amounting to 1.8 meters and from seemingly going wide it swerved inside the goal-post. Even Payet admitted: “Usually I can tell when I hit it if it is going to go in and I sometimes celebrate beforehand, but with this one I thought it was going over — then it dropped in.”
Which was little consolation to a bemused row of Palace players looking over their shoulders. One of them, Damien Delaney said: “When he hit it, as it went over the wall I thought ‘that one’s going into Row Z’, I swear to God.”
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has traditionally bought well from the French market, but decided Payet would have been surplus to requirements. He said: “I have known him for a long, long time. He played in Saint-Etienne and we watched him many times. I think he has all the attributes to be a top, top player, but he is 29-years-old already. I had these kind of players, we had no need (to sign him). Historically we have always had a great number of creative players. We have (Mesut) Ozil, (Jack) Wilshere, (Santi) Cazorla, (Aaron) Ramsey.”
No need? Wilshere is almost permanently in recovery from something while Cazorla has been sidelined for five months. Wenger has been playing a midfield of Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny and while injuries may be unpredictable, at Arsenal they are part of the club’s DNA. Payet, who would fit Arsenal’s style perfectly, is playing as well as any player in the Premier League in a West Ham team three points off fourth place, unbeaten in its last 15 games and that has six shutouts in its last nine league matches.
While Arsenal has won on its last four visits to Upton Park, the Gunners trail leader Leicester by 11 points as another season that promised more than it will deliver approaches the final straight.
Cheikhou Kouyate is available to play against Arsenal after the midfielder’s red card against Crystal Palace was rescinded by the Football Association. The Senegal international was sent off for a challenge on Dwight Gayle, which many saw as harsh, though that does not make it incorrect.
West Ham appealed and the panel of two former referees and an ex-player reviewed the tackle with the benefit of slo-mo and multiple angles. Of course, Mark Clattenburg had only a split-second in real time from one angle in the heat of the battle to make his original decision. It was believed for a dismissal to be overturned it had to be clearly wrong, though this yardstick seems to have been downgraded to harsh.
Seeing red: FIFA and UEFA never overrule red cards apart for mistaken identity because they believe match officials should be backed. The F.A. has a different view because it wants what it perceives as a natural sense of justice to prevail. If it is so keen on this, it should also allow a panel to review horrendous, violent challenges that have either been missed by the referee or punished as a yellow card.
Strangely, the stakeholders, who include the Professional Footballers’ Association and the League Managers’ Association, are not in favor of sanctions being upgraded. A classic case of self-interest, preferring players to be let off rather than those who commit potential leg-breaking fouls to be punished and suspended.
On second thought: Roberto Martinez, the Everton manager, made Leighton Baines apologize for saying “the chemistry is not quite there with the team on the pitch at the moment” and that the F.A. Cup semifinalists, 12th in the Premier League “are not where we should be.”
Martinez claimed the left-back was “misinterpreted” by a local paper, which must be the first time a manager has told a player to apologize for comments he never really made.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.