31st March 2016. By Greg Lea.
When it became clear towards the end of last season that West Ham United would dismiss manager Sam Allardyce ahead of the 2015/16 campaign, many warned that the decision could come back to haunt them.
Although supporters never really saw eye to eye with the current Sunderland boss, whose style of football was generally not to their taste, they could not deny that he was a steady hand and a virtual guarantee of Premier League survival. With the Olympic Stadium becoming West Ham's home from 2016/17 onwards, parting company with Allardyce was interpreted by some as an unnecessary risk to West Ham's status as a top flight outfit.
Such concerns were legitimate at the time, but the Hammers' accomplishments since then show that replacing Allardyce with Slaven Bilic was a terrific move. Under the guidance of the club's popular former player, West Ham are one win away from the FA Cup semi-finals the replay of their last eight tie with Manchester United takes place on 13 April and in the hunt for a place in next season's Champions League. Victory over struggling Crystal Palace at Upton Park on Saturday will see them end the day in the top four if out-of-sorts Manchester City fail to win at Bournemouth, with Bilic's charges going into the business end of the campaign in fine form.
The season began brilliantly with a shock 2-0 win against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on the opening day, but home defeats to Leicester City and Bournemouth before the end of August suggested West Ham could be in for a year of struggle. That they have not lost at Upton Park since then is testament to the fine unit that Bilic has assembled, with their effectiveness on the counter-attack bringing some memorable triumphs away from home, too: West Ham have won at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City this term, as well as picking up hard-fought draws at the homes of Manchester United and Chelsea.
There is a brilliant balance to this West Ham side, who have a mix of ingredients that enables them to either overpower or outplay opponents. Defensively, Adrian is a reliable goalkeeper; Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbonna and James Collins are all strong and solid centre-halves; Aaron Cresswell has been one of the best left-backs in the division this season; and Michail Antonio has adapted well to his new right-back berth with Carl Jenkinson and James Tomkins currently sidelined with injury.
Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate have struck up an excellent midfield partnership and complement each other well, with Alex Song and Pedro Obiang very able deputies in the engine room. Loanee Manuel Lanzini provides a dash of creativity and guile further forward, while Dimitri Payet has been the signing of the season in the Premier League, scoring eight goals, recording eight assists and producing many more mesmerising moments of magic.
At the top of the pitch, Diafra Sakho, Enner Valencia, Andy Carroll and Emmanuel Emenike is a strong pool of strikers, with three members of the quartet also capable of playing out wide. The likes of Victor Moses and Mauro Zarate have also played their parts in 2015/16 despite either being out injured for long periods or sold on, with the emergence of gifted 17-year-old Reece Oxford another plus point for West Ham fans this year.
Whether or not the Hammers make the FA Cup semi-final they will face Everton at Wembley if Manchester United are defeated in the replay or qualify for the Champions League, they have had a magnificent season. With a new 60,000-capacity home on the horizon, West Ham's future looks very bright indeed.
Premier League Highs for West Ham United
31st March 2016. By Greg Lea.