Hopes and fears for the months ahead

We've been here before. First game of the season against Aston Villa and by 4.50pm we should have a pretty good idea of our prospects for the new season.

So it was on August 14, 2010, that new manager Avram Grant took his squad to Villa Park — and saw them torn apart 3-0. To use the old joke, we were lucky to get nought. Nine months later we finished bottom of the Premiership.

Two years on, history shouldn’t repeat itself — and not only because we’ve got home advantage this time round in the battle of the claret and blues. Notwithstanding the arrival of highly-rated Paul Lambert as manager, Villa are a weaker prospect than two years and four days ago.

They had a desperate season last year, winning just seven games, scoring a mere 37 goals and flirting with relegation before limping to 16th. And at the time of writing, Villa hadn’t made any pre-season marquee signings.

The simple fact is that if we can’t get results against the likes of Villa, then we will be in for a rerun of that miserable 2010-11 season under Grant. No-one who watched the Hammers regularly last year in the Championship can be under any illusions about our frailties — and to have that slight sense of unease about stepping back up to playing with the big boys.

I don’t expect West Ham to repeat the sometimes comical defending and fatal lack of spirit of the Grant regime — Big Sam is too wily and experienced for that. But I worry, really worry, about our lack of quality. With the exceptions of James Tomkins (a class of his own), Mark Noble and perhaps Ricardo Vaz Te it’s hard to see who in last season’s squad had real Premiership quality.

Our close season signings don’t set the blood pulsing. I was desperately sorry to see Rob Green go and am not sure whether Jussi Jääskeläinen — who’s 37 years old and struggled to maintain his place at Bolton recently — is a like-for-like replacement.

James Collins is a solid acquisition to play alongside Tomkins, but Winston Reid and George McCartney, for all their good seasons last year, didn’t exactly shine last time out in the Premiership. (As an aside, I was very disappointed that Big Sam has parted company with Abdoulaye Faye after he unaccountably fell out of favour.)

I’m afraid our full-backs could struggle at the top level, finding themselves pinned back more often than they make it into the opponents’ half. In midfield Mohamed Diamé should be a sound partner for Mark Noble. I saw him playing for Senegal a couple of weeks ago in the Olympics: a lot of the play came through him and he looked as if he had a lot of time on the ball. Alou Diarra seems a similar player, although I guess he has also been bought to act as a cover for Tomkins and Collins.

Much of our fate could depend on Kevin Nolan who — for all his 13 goals last season — will have to become more involved and inspirational if West Ham are to achieve a reasonable finish. But my biggest worry is upfront, where our lack of firepower was painfully evident for much of last year. Vaz Te gave us a desperately-needed injection of pace and skill and new boy Modibo Maïga might do the same, but Carlton Cole — even if he can stay fit — will surely struggle at this new level.

Hopefully there will be a last-minute signing now the Andy Carroll deal appears to have gone off the boil. Even approaching him showed some ambition by the two Davids and, with luck, an efficient target man can be found to play alongside Cole. I fear we’ll say goodbye to Sam Baldock, whose star glittered briefly last season, and wish we could get rid of Frédéric Piquionne, whose loss of form would be funny but for the huge pay deal he is doubtless still on.

Ultimately I think we should have enough calibre — as long as it’s bolstered by a couple more decent recruits — to finish around 14th or 15th this season. Reading are on such a roll that I reckon they will achieve mid-table, but Southampton will be found out as Premiership defenders put Rickie Lambert in their pocket. Norwich will surely struggle without Paul Lambert, along with Wigan, Stoke and perhaps Sunderland.

The unknown quantities in the bottom half of the table could be Villa and Swansea. If we can take four points from our first two games, then those pre-season nerves should be calmed. I can’t wait now for it all to begin again.

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