David Moyes faces the toughest test of his emergent second spell in charge of West Ham United away at Sheffield United on Friday.
This is a fixture which reminds us all that while football is becoming more and more predictable at its elite levels, its odds can still be fabulously defied or confounded in the trenches beneath the stardust strata.
The Hammers were supposed to make a breakthrough this season after a big-spending summer and were fancied by many for a top six finish.
The Blades, meanwhile, were universal favourites to head straight back to the Championship from where they had come.
Yet there sits Chris Wilder in eighth place with his side winning plaudits all around for their technical proficiency and tactical shrewdness as well as their toughness and sense of purpose.
And here comes Moyes, heading to Yorkshire this week having been handed a rescue mission by West Ham for the second time in three seasons and determined to use the opportunity to restore a reputation which was once one of the biggest in the English game.
He has made a decent start in repairing the wreckage left behind by his predecessor Manuel Pellegrini with a 4-0 hammering of Bournemouth in the Premier League followed by an impressively hard-headed FA Cup Third Round win away at Gillingham.
Relegation Betting Odds
In just that short time, he has made an impression upon the analysts with West Ham now ranked only seventh across the board in the relegation betting at 4/1 with Bet365 and Ladbrokes and 9/2 with William Hill.
Sheffield United? They don’t even really feature in the picture any longer. From 4/6 for the drop with Ladbrokes in August they are now well out of the betting at 40/1 with same outfit and 50/1 with Betway. Impressive.
Pellegrini, the 66-year-old Chilean with the big name – Real Madrid, Manchester City – will leave behind in England a lasting impression of how utterly incapable he was when it came to doing anything to halt his team’s desperate slide towards the drop zone from fifth place in September.
He was frozen. Inert. Unresponsive to the team’s plight. It was almost as if he found the struggle too distasteful for his refined and phlegmatic palate.
The debate about the merits of foreign coaches versus their British counterparts is a complex one. But Pellegrini certainly provided ammunition for those who view it in black-and-white patriotic terms.
📊 Which of these #PL sides is most likely to stay up?— Bookmakers.co.uk (@bookmakers) January 9, 2020
West Ham’s hierarchy also added more grist to that particular mill by turning for a second time to the same Scottish coach who got them out of bother in 2017-18.
Just as they had called in the ultimate, pragmatic home-grown “fireman,” Sam Allardyce to restore their fortunes after relegation from the Premier League in 2011.
There are currently 11 British bosses in the Premier League – the most for some time. One of the big six clubs, Chelsea, even has an Englishman in charge, Frank Lampard.
But it’s down the rough end of the street where the majority are doing their stuff.
The German, Daniel Farke, is bottom with Norwich City.
But then, counting upwards, the shakedown reads like this: Watford – Nigel Pearson; Bournemouth – Eddie Howe; Aston Villa – Dean Smith; West Ham – David Moyes; Burnley – Sean Dyche; Brighton – Graeme Potter; and in 11th place, Newcastle United – Steve Bruce.
Leicester City’s Northern Irishman Brendan Rodgers carries the standard for domestic ability with his team in second place.
Lampard has Chelsea fourth. Wilder’s Blades are eighth and Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace ninth.
Who’s Favourite To Go Down?
Norwich are the bookies’ favourites to drop, priced at 1/10 with Betfair and Unibet and 1/16 with Paddy Power.
Then it’s Aston Villa who are priced at 5/6 with William Hill and Betfair.
Bournemouth make up the trio most likely to tumble – 11/8 with Bet365 and Betfred and 13/10 with Coral.
To be honest, Eddie’s Howe’s Bournemouth side did not offer much of an examination for Moyes’ opening game back at West Ham – as welcome as the big mood-lift it delivered was in east London.
The cup tie at Gillingham was tricky. Pellegrini had played under-strength sides when losing at Wimbledon in the FA Cup last season and when crashing 4-0 at Oxford United in the Carabao Cup this season.
It was a no-brainer for Moyes to avoid the same mistake; especially as he has to win over a group of supporters who have not tasted success since the 1980 FA Cup final win against Arsenal.
West Ham’s fierce fan base appreciated the fact that he put out a strong side down in Kent.
Importantly, they now carry the momentum of a hard-fought win into Friday’s fixture at Bramall Lane.
Pellegrini’s inaction had also made it a relatively simple task to sharpen up the team in the two fixtures under Moyes so far.
Simply by working on the basics of intensity, organisation, pressing and commitment, the Scot delivered an instant improvement. Pellegrini had allowed all that to drift.
Wilder’s Blades will present a more stringent test than Bournemouth.
Yes, they have lost their last two league fixtures. Away against Manchester City and Liverpool, which was some kind of unwanted present to hand them over the holiday period.
Before that, they were unbeaten in four games.
Blades Better On The Road
They are actually better away from home. The record is four wins, two draws and four defeats at Bramall Lane with three wins, six draws and two defeats on the road.
But this fixture will have extra spice under the lights with the Blades’ fans still seething over the Carlos Tevez illegal signing affair of 2007 which allowed West Ham to stay up and condemned Sheffield United to 12 years outside of the top flight.
It wasn’t until Moyes’ fifth game in charge last time around following the sacking of Slaven Bilic in 2017-18 that he got his first win, a 1-0 defeat of Chelsea.
He has made a much better start now.
Having been 18th when he took charge, they finished safely in 13th.
Back then, he had only a temporary six-month contract. This time, rightly, he was able to insist on a permanent deal and has 18 months plus a one-year option.
As the member of London’s Big Four clubs with the strongest “regional” east London and Essex identity – and as the least successful of them – West Ham are an oddly ludicrous yet romantic club.
The kit they wore to beat Gillingham is modelled on the one they famously wore to beat Arsenal at Wembley. Should they really be reminding everyone that it is 40 years since they won anything?
The celebrated author, Sebastian Faulks, who is a supporter, once described their former home at the Boylen Ground with its “East End mixture of sentimentality and grievance.”
One of those qualities is now sadly missing at the soulless London Stadium. The other has been delivered there aplenty. It’s not hard to guess which one.
There is time for neither, however. Instead. It is time for Moyes to continue applying the solid, common sense managerial virtues he has imprinted very quickly so far in his second spell in charge.
Little, though, could test that like a cold Friday night at seething Bramall Lane. Enjoy it on TV in all its winter glory.