»I am not West Ham’s saviour«, read the headlines last week, as Thomas Hitzlsperger played down his impact in the FA Cup against Burnley. But after scoring one goal and assisting another in his belated debut, he had Hammers fans feverishly ticking down the minutes to his league bow. A man-of-the-match performance against Liverpool on Sunday, with Demba Ba also excellent, suggested that whatever Hitzlsberger’s protestations, a brace of Bundesliga boys might just keep the Hammers up. After a barnstorming 3-1 win, it’s Frühling in the East End and West Ham are coming out of hibernation.
This was never quite the script though. If anyone, it was supposed to be top roly-poly artist and occasional net-bulger Robbie Keane who was going to secure West Ham’s survival. But after the high profile loanee got crocked in his second game for his new side, gloom struck the long-suffering Upton Park faithful once again and normal service was resumed: Watch through your fingers and pray that Scott Parker saves the day.
Thomas Hitzlsperger: The guy is golden
Hitzlsperger meanwhile had been kaputt since August, out with a knackered thigh he picked up on international duty, and almost forgotten. Demba Ba joined in January but in most inauspicious circumstances, having failed a medical at Stoke. Together though, they have energised the West Ham line-up, brought balance to the squad (particularly left-footer Hitzlsperger) and seemingly lifted some of the pressure from Parker’s (injured and injected) shoulders. The midfield battler has been a class above the rest all season and carried the team through difficult circumstances. He even gave them a tub-thumping half-time oration at 3-0 down against West Brom that turned the game. The guy is golden – but he cannot save the Claret and Blue alone.
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Fitting then, that Hitzlsperger should assist Parker for West Ham’s first goal on Sunday, a brilliantly dinked finished with the outside of the foot that squeaked inside Pepe Reina’s far post. But Hitzlsperger’s contribution went beyond that single action. Demonstrating the energy of a man who has been champing at the bit all season, he catalysed West Ham’s midfield, pressed Liverpool, tackled back, fought for 50-50 balls, and even slung the odd glorious 40-yard cross field ball out to the strikers.
It was inspiring stuff and a league debut so polished it was worth the wait. He blasted a few shots from long range, too – he is Der Hammer after all, a man so-perfectly monikered for West Ham, that his role in their potential survival feels pre-destined. A few more performances like this, and he will be an Upton Park cult hero. »The way we approach the games is important, being positive and believing we can beat these teams«, said Hitzlsperger afterwards, »It starts with work-rate, closing them down, and we have to treat every game like this.«
Demba Ba's physical power and tireless galloping
Demba Ba too is rapidly endearing himself with fans after scoring three goals in two premier league starts. His diving, flopping, flying header at the weekend was a dramatic sign of his quality, but his performance throughout had West Ham fans out of their seats. He battered the Liverpool back line and Jamie Carragher in particular was exposed by the Senegalese striker’s physical power and tireless galloping. Indomitable, Ba nudged the Liverpool stopper another step closer to retirement.
For Avram Grant, a manager who earlier in the season was seemingly terminally undermined by his own board, it was a redemptive afternoon. The rumpled Hammers manager, normally a picture of quietly fermenting despair, was bouncing on the Upton Park touchline, pumping his fists with joy as the goals went in. Even he could sense transformation in this performance, a break in the clouds that have hovered overhead for so long this season.
His side are though are engaged in a relegation scrap of epic proportions, with Wigan on the bottom and Everton in 11th only six points apart. »It’s amazing«, said Grant after the game on Sunday. »I’ve been following English football for more than 40 years and I’ve never seen a situation where with ten games left, you still don’t know a single one of the teams that will be relegated.« This result left West Ham in 17th place, with only a single goal’s difference separating them from safety and Wolves in 16th position.
Brutal wake-up call for Liverpool
A tough run-in now awaits, with Stoke, Spurs and Manchester United up next and all in all, four of the top five still to play. But with the mood around the club suddenly buoyant, it is not impossible that West Ham will float up to safety and beat the flush. That would be some turnaround for a side that has spent nearly the entire season glued to the bottom of the table, lurching from crisis to crisis. It would also be a remarkable conclusion to a frustrating season for Hitzlsperger and one that might yet see him return to the national set up (if he hasn’t simply already been obsoleted by the younger, flashier model of German midfielder).
For Liverpool meanwhile, this was a brutal wake-up call. Never mind learning to live without Fernando Torres, this was a game that suggested the club needs to be planning for a future without Jamie Carragher (leaden) and Steven Gerrard (wasteful). Gerrard was in fact so poor that according to Opta, he misplaced 20 passes – more than any outfield Liverpool player in game so far this season. In mitigation, this was Gerrard’s first outing after injury, but after an indifferent season the signs he is regressing are increasingly evident. Scott Parker for England please.
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Folge 28: Larking around
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