RELEGATION-THREATENED Fulham make the trip across London to face West Ham on Friday night and Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) spies his best bet.
West Ham v Fulham | Friday 22nd February 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Manuel Pellegrini and Claudio Ranieri are two former Premier League-winning managers.
However, their careers have taken a dip since overseeing title successes with Man City and Leicester in 2013-14 and 2015-16 respectively.
Pellegrini focuses largely on what his players do with the ball and perhaps a borderline laissez-faire attitude towards defending proved his downfall in the latter stages of his tenure at City, who he left in 2016, two summers before taking over at West Ham.
Ranieri, meanwhile, inspired one of the greatest achievements in sporting history in the East Midlands, but the 2016 World Coach of the Year has since struggled to retain his influence, with Fulham winning just two in 16 under the Italian’s watch.
Which manager will recapture their mojo on Friday night?
Inconsistent West Ham
It had been a poor start to life at the London Stadium for the Hammers, who endured an underwhelming 2016-17 campaign under Slaven Bilic, before spending much of the following season battling the drop, with David Moyes ultimately steering them to safety.
The target this season, therefore, has been to return to the top half of the Premier League and begin to build foundations for potential European qualification.
Pellegrini is on course to deliver on that remit, although last month’s 4-2 FA Cup exit at the hands of League One AFC Wimbledon represents a huge missed opportunity.
It is therefore somewhat ironic that the Irons’ best performances in 2019 have come against the toughest opposition.
They deservedly beat Arsenal 1-0, with Declan Rice scoring against the Gunners in January, then drew 1-1 with leaders Liverpool earlier this month and were good value for the point that Michail Antonio secured.
West Ham have a left-sided attacking midfielder in Felipe Anderson who could play in the Champions League.
No advanced midfielder outside the big six has scored more Premier League goals than Anderson’s eight – and of course he has excellent dribbling ability and creative qualities to his game as well.
Pellegrini is also boosted by the return of Manuel Lanzini and Samir Nasri; the latter could come into the eleven with Anderson taking Robert Snodgrass’ place on the left.
Additionally, we could see individualistic forward Marko Arnautovic come in up top for poacher Javier Hernandez, who along with target man Andy Carroll represents an attractive alternative option for the second half.
In midfield, West Ham possess a strong balance of youth and experience; Rice should continue his impressive individual campaign whilst being guided by reliable stalwart Mark Noble, while rampaging right-back Ryan Fredericks should face his old employers
Championship enthusiasts recall, with some fondness, the Fulham side that seriously challenged for promotion in 2016-17, then achieved it via the Play-Offs the following season.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s troops played a modern brand of patient, possession football, with Tom Cairney’s influence through the middle allowing them to control and create simultaneously.
The Cottagers though have not quite been able to reproduce that template in the Premier League, partly because of improved opposition but also because the defence had been dismantled.
Their excellent full-backs from the second half of last season, Fredericks and Matt Target, have left the club while star defender Tim Ream’s campaign has hardly been helped by spending August plus most of September and November on the sidelines.
Frequent changes to the back-four early in the campaign under Jokanovic proved hugely disruptive and, since the strict Serb left in November, replacement Ranieri has tried to oversee a swift shift in style.
Alas, too many components of Fulham’s squad have been uncomfortable with the former Chelsea boss’ methods, which entails balls being played forward at the earliest opportunity.
Although top goalscorer Aleksandar Mitrovic can be a beast-like asset to the Whites when surrounded by teammates making supporting runs, he is not so effective when asked to hold the ball up in isolation.
Because Mitrovic’s confidence has suffered this term, the whole team has ceded control in too many games.
Their best performance in 2019 – and the only time they avoided defeat – was last month’s 4-2 home victory over Brighton.
Two goals down, Ranieri threw caution to the wind and put Cairney on for a defender, handing him a favoured central role and Fulham looked more like their old selves.
Since then though, lifeless 2-0 and 3-0 defeats to Crystal Palace and Manchester United respectively offer little hope for a resurgence, meaning natives are already preparing themselves for a 2019-20 campaign back in the Championship.
The Betting Angle
It is difficult to argue with West Ham being available at odds-on quotes here.
However, just eight of Manuel Pellegrini’s 140 games as a Premier League manager to date have ended in a 1-0 win for his team – and the only 1-0 win he has overseen as West Ham boss came against Arsenal.
That would suggest therefore that when his teams get in front, especially against lower-placed opposition, they are likely to continue attacking for more goals.
Fulham have the third-worst defensive record since Christmas with 16 conceded in eight, but their Expected Goals Against (xGA) in that period is 2.05, the worst in the Premier League; in other words, they have been slightly fortunate not to concede more.
For that reason, we’ll Coral’s 23/20 on West Ham to win a match that sees two goals or more.
West Ham v Fulham – West Ham to win and Over 1.5 Goals (23/20 Coral)