Top four? Behind most-impressive Dmitri Payet, West Ham can think why not
“I think the free-kicks we gave away were needless,” Eddie Howe, the Bournemouth manager said in the aftermath of his team’s 3-1 home defeat to West Ham United on Tuesday night, a game that was ultimately decided by the visitors’ two goals from set pieces.
“They’ve got world-class players who can take advantage of those situations.”
Whether Dimitri Payet, the scorer of the first free-kick and provider of the second goal, is quite that good is open to debate, but there is no doubt that he has been one of the most impressive performers in the Premier League this term.
In fact, there is an argument that Payet has been the best player, despite the credible cases held by Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, Mesut Ozil and Romelu Lukaku.
With West Ham now just one point behind fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur in the table, the Frenchman could even lead his side to Champions League qualification this season.
“It is scary, to be fair, how good he is,” manager Slaven Bilic said on Tuesday. “He’s a top player ... [one] who, with his presence and with his passing, is making all the other players better.”
Payet made a terrific start to life at Upton Park after arriving from Marseille for £12 million (Dh63.3m) in the summer, scoring three goals and providing two assists in his first six Premier League appearances.
He also found the back of the net in subsequent games with Sunderland and Crystal Palace, while another good showing against Chelsea helped West Ham to record a memorable 2-1 triumph over the champions.
That victory lifted Bilic’s charges into third, but an injury to Payet three weeks later threatened to derail their European charge.
In hindsight, a run of six draws in seven matches was a positive rather than negative return.
With Diafra Sakho, Andy Carroll, Winston Reid, Cheikhou Kouyate, Victor Moses, Alex Song, Manuel Lanzini and Enner Valencia also sidelined at various times, West Ham were able to keep their points tally ticking over despite a host of absentees.
With key men now regaining full fitness – Kouyate and Moses are expected to be involved in Saturday’s clash with Newcastle United, meaning Carroll and Joey O’Brien are now the only players missing – West Ham are in an extremely strong position.
Payet’s displays have not just brought goals and points but also joy to the many supporters who have craved a return to the ‘West Ham way’ in recent years.
Although Bilic’s predecessor Sam Allardyce did a good job during his four years at the helm, his pragmatic playing style meant he was never too popular with a fanbase who take pride in their club’s tradition of attractive, entertaining football.
Only Ozil and Kevin De Bruyne have fashioned more chances for their teammates than Payet this season.
Payet has won over West Ham followers with his elegance as much as his effectiveness.
With West Ham set to move into the 54,000-capacity Olympic Stadium in August, Payet’s skills could serve the club well going forward.
The new ground gives West Ham a real chance to become a major player in the Premier League in the coming years, and the chance to watch the likes of Payet perform every two weeks will only increase the likelihood of new fans being drawn to the East London outfit.
Payet, who has played a central role in reconnecting the team with the supporters, is the embodiment of West Ham’s recent change in direction.
With him in the side, there is no reason why Bilic’s men cannot keep their form up and finish in the top four this term.
No loss yet to Leicester’s lustre
Leicester City simply will not go away.
With 17 matches of the campaign remaining, it was not unreasonable to assume Claudio Ranieri’s side would have by tailed off by now after a remarkable start to the season that transformed the relegation candidates into the unlikeliest of title challengers.
Wednesday night’s 1-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur suggests that Leicester are here to stay as a top-four contender, however.
That victory in midweek came after a run of three Premier League games without a win or a goal, with star men and top scorers Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez suffering a slight dip in form.
Nevertheless, Robert Huth’s late winner at White Hart Lane means that Leicester now find themselves level on points with leaders Arsenal and eight clear of West Ham United in fifth place.
Saturday’s trip to bottom-of-the-table Aston Villa gives them a chance to increase that margin further, but it could also provide Ranieri with a taste of what is to come for the remainder of the campaign.
Leicester’s blueprint for success this year has been a model of play that sees them sit deep and soak up pressure before pouncing on the counter-attack.
Their average possession of 46 per cent is higher than only West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland, and they have had more than 50 per cent of the ball in only two matches this term.
It is now probable that the so-called smaller sides will treat Leicester with the same respect they would a Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham or Arsenal.
This could result in opponents ceding possession, sinking back into their own half of the field and cutting off space in behind their defensive line.
It will be a different type of test for Leicester, and one they will need to overcome to secure a Uefa Champions League spot this season.
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Published: January 15, 2016 04:00 AM