Hardly Happy Hammers look for Home Comforts
West Ham United's Upton Park can reasonably be regarded one of the more accommodating Premier League venues to be visiting right now. On paper at least.
It's the first of two lengthy road trips on the bounce with lowly Portsmouth to follow and Burnley supporters will have long since bookmarked these two games as potential places of profit as the Clarets seek out their first away win of the season.
Thanks to our terrific form at Turf Moor, however, a pair of draws will definitely do. Keeping sides such as West Ham and Portsmouth at arms length is the priority scenario at this stage of the season, though that won't stop the optimistic Burnley boss plotting the pursuit of the maximum haul on offer.
Gianfranco Zola's men just haven't got going at home this term. Their one league win came only in the dying seconds of a match against an Aston Villa side who had earlier missed a penalty, though a spirited fightback against Arsenal to draw 2-2 would have felt like a victory.
News filtered through on Thursday that Matthew Upson might be absent from the Hammers line-up after picking up a 'hammy' in training. The England international has not been at his most focused according to West Ham supporters, many of whom have bemoaned the loss of his central defensive partner James Collins to Aston Villa as a key to their stuttering start. Burnley, though, will doubtless be encouraged by this development. West Ham's back four has been anything but settled this season and the team has conceded more goals at home than everybody other than Bolton.
The identity of the Burnley's opposition left-back has become key in recent weeks. Seasoned full-backs Wayne Bridge and Stephen Warnock have struggled to cope with the Clarets' threat down the right and it looks likely that Herita Ilunga will be recalled to face that challenge on Saturday. If Upson does report unfit, then the other spots in defence, from right to left, are likely to be filled by Julian Faubert, the experienced Danny Gabbidon and young Portuguese defender Manuel Da Costa.
Another issue over West Ham's team selection surrounds the availability of Alessandro Diamanti. The 26-year-old striker is Zola's big catch and his appearances since his move from Livorno in Italy, although frustratingly fleeting, have been enough to excite Hammers supporters. Rumours have suggested he hasn't settled well to London life but Burnley should beware of his potential threat. Otherwise attacking midfield duties might fall on any combination of youngsters Jack Collison, Junior Stanislas or Zavon Hines while the luckless Keiron Dyer is also pushing for a recall after impressing in the Reserves. Two certainties are that Scott Parker will anchor the midfield and Carlton Cole will spearhead the attack. It seems that Mark Noble, a player I have always admired, is out of favour at the moment and is likely to start on the bench.
Whoever Zola picks, there can be little doubt his team have legs in abundance. Burnley will have to work extremely hard to keep up with the home side's mobility but wasn't that the case at Manchester City where we competed so manfully?
As usual, there's precious little to speculate about Coyle's Burnley team. If we were to look at the individual performances at Eastlands, there might be an argument for Kevin McDonald to start instead of Robbie Blake. However, Blake was back to his best against Villa so I expect the Burnley boss to name the same team that played so well last week.
Wade Elliott's energy remains key to our strategy and that alone will ensure he keeps his place, though he is due a big game, if only to keep up with the standards being set by those around him. It's been a wee while since he has popped up with an assist.
There's been renewed optimism this week that Burnley will make a permanent move for David Nugent, despite the fact he can't get a start at present. Fair play to Nugent. He always seems to be sporting a Cheshire cat smile and is certainly proving to be an effective substitute. His 40 yard 'offside' goal last week was another snapshot of his undoubted quality.
Displacing Steven Fletcher isn't really an option at the moment. It's been a pleasure to see this latest Burnley no 9 grow into his shirt with a string of consistent displays and should West Ham's central defence be a makeshift pairing, the young Scot has the ability to pull them from pillar to post.
West Ham's poor start to the season has surprised me and I don't expect them to stay down there. But with their financial situation reportedly dire, maybe they are a club who might get sucked in to a relegation battle. Great player though he was, Zola is still an inexperienced manager who does not appear to have too much room for manoeuvre in terms of adding to his squad. His team has a strong backbone, a clutch of exciting youngsters and a centre-forward, in Carlton Cole, who has the ability to nail 15 league goals. Injuries could yet undermine their progress, certainly they need some points soon.
Their supporters clearly see this one as a hugely important match. Burnley might just seize on any apprehension to take the challenge to them like they did at Eastlands. West Ham have proved to be quick starters in certain games this season but at home, their supporters can be quick to air their frustrations.
They are a club I like and have a touch of sympathy for their fans. Despite their passionate supporter base and constantly churning youth academy, they've never really had the mettle to make it to the next level.
Who knows where they might be if they had clung onto to Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe?
It must gall their older supporters no end to see the fruits of their academy leave without fulfilling their potential. And they must seethe at the fact that Chelsea, a club who mustered such dreadful support in the early 1980's when West Ham enjoyed their highest ever league finish, should be the undeserving London neighbour granted the resources to see the likes of Lampard and Cole mature.
That entertaining Hammers team of 1985/86, containing the likes of Alvin Martin, Billy Bonds, Alan Devonshire, Frank McAvennie and a young Tony Cottee, finished only four points behind eventual winners Liverpool. But it never got better than that for the East Londoners.
Indeed they were relegated three seasons later and were somewhat a yo-yo team into the early 90s before finally settling down in the top flight under the guidance of Harry Redknapp, who won as many as he lost at West Ham over six seasons, and combined the talents of the burgeoning youth set-up with attacking imports of the calibre of Paulo Di Canio, Paulo Wanchope and Frederick Kanoute.
Following relegation under Glenn Roeder, Burnley bumped into West Ham during the 2003-4 season, drawing 2-2 away and 1-1 at home. Then in 2004-05, the Hammers did a 1-0 double over us on their way back to the Premier League under Alan Pardew, beating Preston to the play-off prize.
We have to be confident of picking up if we can sustain the quality of our last two displays. I'm going for a repeat of the 03'04 season and a 2-2 draw.Cuban Claret