After a mixed start to The New-Year, the months of February and March would bring nothing but pain and misery as we were plunged into a relegation battle and the start of a dreadful winless run.
Despite the positive end to January that included two-consecutive victories, there would be no such joy in the second month of the year, and February would start as it meant to go on.
The first League game of the month came in the form of a tough home encounter with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who were on F.A Cup duty the week before after dumping us out of the competition 0-5 in early January. However, revenge would not be on the cards, instead lightening would strike twice at The London Stadium.
The Citizens arrived in fine form and were soon ahead through Kevin De Bruyne, who started off the slick City move by intercepting a poor Aaron Cresswell pass. Just four minutes later, it was two for the visitors, after Spaniard David Silva arrived at the back-post to convert a Leroy Sane cross. A sense of De Ja Vu was being felt across The Stadium, as The Citizens made it three before the 40-minute mark through another tap-in, this time from new-signing Gabriel Jesus after some more diabolical defending.
Yaya Toure rounded off the victory just after half-time, converting from the penalty spot after debutant Jose Fonte pulled down Raheem Sterling in the area. Fellow January signing Robert Snodgrass made his debut as a late substitute, but he could do nothing to turn the City tide as they ran out 0-4 winners. Pressure was heaped on Slaven Bilic after we conceded our 9th goal against the Manchester club in less than a month, we had to redeem ourselves at The St Mary’s a few days later.
Bilic and the boys made the trip down-South to face Claude Puel’s men deflated after the heavy defeat to The Citizens, but we would end up surprising even ourselves with our first win away at Southampton for 17 years.
However, The Saints led early, as debutant Manolo Gabbiadini beat the offside trap to blast home from close range but we would soon draw level. Fantastic play for Spanish midfielder Pedro Obiang allowed him to get into position to slip a wonderful ball through to Andy Carroll, who finished calmly past Fraser Forster for our 14th minute equaliser.
The first-half ebbed and flowed with chances at both ends and no goals, before the ball fell again to Obiang on the edge of the hosts’ box and he rifled a low strike into the bottom corner to give us the lead on the stroke of half-time. The second period started in the same vein as it finished for us, with skipper Mark Noble’s deflected free-kick finding its way past Forster yet again to extend our lead and all but seal the three-points.
Southampton piled the pressure on with a late charge but just like we did at The Riverside, we held out well for a second consecutive victory on the road. Our third victory in four-games took us up to 9th place for only the second time that season.
The home fixture against West Brom the week after presented us with an opportunity to avenge our 2-4 defeat at The Hawthorns back in September and boost our slim chances of qualifying for The Europa League. However, it would be another frustrating start to a game at The London Stadium, as we fell behind early through Nacer Chadli.
Shortly after the visitors took the lead, Sofiane Feghouli had a goal wrongly disallowed by referee Michael Oliver for a foul inside the area and Tony Pulis’s men would keep their slender advantage at the break. We came out firing on all cylinders in the second period and soon our frustration was relieved, when Feghouli turned in the rebound of a powerful Manuel Lanzini effort that struck the bar to bring us level on 63 minutes.
Lanzini may have assisted the Algerian for the equaliser, but he would return the favour in laying the Argentine off for his superb left footed strike to put us ahead with three-minutes left to play. The wonder-goal had looked like the winner, but frustration was never too far away on that bitter afternoon and it struck in added-time.
The Baggies had won a corner in the last attack of the game and Chris Brunt’s delivery was met by Jonny Evans to head the visitors to a cruel and undeserved point. The harsh fact of that torrid season was that we threw away 22 points (the second most in The Premier League) from winning positions. Hammers fans now had to endure a week’s F.A Cup break, before the trip to Vicarage Road on February 25th.
We faced Walter Mazzarri’s men away from home, after a week of re-grouping and put in one of our best displays of the season on the road, but were left frustrated yet again. Former Hammer Mauro Zarate, who had just recently joined up with The Hornets, was at the centre of the action when he was pulled down by Cheikhou Kouyate in the box and referee Craig Pawson pointed to the spot. Watford skipper Troy Deeney converted the penalty and the home side led on three minutes.
Robert Snodgrass missed the opportunity to bring us level just before half-time when he wasn’t quick enough to convert an open goal and Zarate was stretched off in clear discomfort just before the break in a largely unentertaining first-half. However, the second period would not disappoint, with Pawson waving away a similar penalty appeal from Kouyate himself early in the half. Top-scorer Michail Antonio missed a golden opportunity from a Cresswell cross just moments later, but our patience was finally rewarded on 73 minutes.
A dazzling run and shot from Antonio struck both posts before falling to Andre Ayew, with The Ghanaian tapping in on his return from the AFCON to set up a thrilling final 15 minutes. However, Antonio would soon be shown his second yellow card and dismissed for scooping the ball away with his hand unnecessarily. It was ‘park the bus’ time for us now, but the best chance that the hosts could fashion was a late Isaac Success sitter that was missed by the Nigerian to ensure that the spoils were shared. The point meant that we ended February in 9th place with our second consecutive draw, but Bilic’s men were now unbeaten in four heading into March.
Future Champions Chelsea were the first opposition in Stratford in March under the lights on a cold Monday evening at The London Stadium. It was to be yet another positive performance with a poor result, as The Blues beat us to go 10 points clear at the top.
The visitors gave themselves the lead on the break fairly early as Pedro slid a ball into Eden Hazard, who rounded Darren Randolph and tapped the ball into the net on 25 minutes. Aaron Cresswell blocked well to deny ex-Hammer Victor Moses and Randolph did well to save from Pedro in the same move before the break to keep the deficit at one. However, Antonio Conte’s men did double their lead five-minutes into the second period through Diego Costa, who’s improvised finish squeezed past Snodgrass on the line from a corner.
Manuel Lanzini’s 6th Premier League goal of the season was nothing but a constellation in our first defeat in a month. It was a quick turn-around for the trip to Bournemouth just five days later, but there would be no repeat of our last visit to the South-Coast.
The Cherries came into the game in poor form, but Eddie Howe’s men would show little sign of that in an eventful first-half at The Vitality Stadium. Referee Bobby Madley awarded the hosts an early penalty when Sofiane Feghouli fouled Charlie Daniels inside the area, only for Josh King to fire wide. The miss would prove costly as we would lead just moments later when Michail Antonio turned and unleashed a magnificent low strike into Artur Boruc’s bottom right-hand corner. However, King would soon avenge his spot-kick miss with a fantastic low-volley that beat Darren Randolph from close-range on 31 minutes.
The home-side were awarded a second penalty before the break for Jose Fonte’s trip on Marc Pugh, but lightening would strike twice as Randolph easily saved Benik Afobe’s tame effort. Remarkably, the scores would stay level at half-time, but the hosts would finally find their second goal just after the break.
Ryan Fraser’s dinked free-kick was flicked onto King, with the Norway international finishing well for his second just three-minutes into the second period. However, we would go onto finally equalise in the 83rd minute after a period of patience, when Sam Byram laid the ball into the path of Andre Ayew to tap in and set up a grand-stand finish. The game would go onto get the finish it deserved but that would mean defeat for Bilic, as King completed his hat-trick on 90 minutes to raise the roof on The Vitality. The defeat was our second in a row and rooted us to 11th place, with a visit from The Champions to round off March.
Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes may not have quite been reaching the heights of the previous season, but had somewhat laid relegation fears to rest when we faced them at home. However, it would be a dream start to this game for the visitors as they led by two with just seven minutes on the clock, through a Riyad Mahrez strike that slipped under Darren Randolph and a Robert Huth header.
Manuel Lanzini, who was again carrying The Hammers, pegged one back with a delicious free-kick on 20 minutes, but Ranieri’s men made it three in the 38th minute through Premier League record-breaker Jamie Vardy. We would go onto dominate the second period and were thrown a lifeline with 27 minutes remaining, when Andre Ayew converted a header from close-range for his third goal in four games.
Both Ayew and Andy Carroll were guilty of missing huge late chances to salvage a point, but in the end, The Foxes held out for three-points that took them further away from danger. However, the second consecutive 3-2 defeat plunged us closer to The Relegation Zone, as we ended the month of March in 12th place and nervously looking over our shoulders.
We may have played out a torrid Spring of Football, but somewhere over the horizon there was light, and the last couple of months of the 2016/2017 Premier League campaign would bring much relief to the ranks of The Claret and Blue Army.