Festive cheer would be spread in the month of December as our poor form picked up, but the dismal January blues would plague the New-Year in the Hammers world. However, there would still be some joy in the otherwise embarrassing start to the second-half of the 2016/2017 Premier League season.
In an unusual and uncharacteristic move, there were no Premier League fixtures on New-Year’s Day and only on the 2nd of January. On that day, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United were the opponents at The London Stadium in one of the most controversial games of the season.
We had made the better start in the clash and had our tails up in the first quarter, but were halted by the unjust dismissal of Sofiane Feghouli on 15 minutes. The Algerian lunged in wildly for a tackle with Phil Jones and referee Mike Dean showed no hesitation in pulling out his red card, much to the disgruntlement of the Hammers faithful. Judging by replays and the criticism of the decision by the likes of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, it was a pure shocker that killed our momentum. Slaven Bilic’s back four provided United with a stern test and Darren Randolph would somehow deny Antonio Valencia from close-range in the first-half. However, David De Gea was also on fine form to deny Manuel Lanzini just before the break and Michail Antonio just after.
Our strong defensive barrier was finally broken down in the 63rd minute when Marcus Rashford pulled the ball back to Juan Mata who stroked home from inside the area. Another questionable piece of officiating was to follow just 15 minutes later when the visitors sealed the deal. Ander Herrera’s touch from a tackle with Pedro Obiang fell to Zlatan Ibrahimovic through on-goal. The Swede made no mistake in firing home but was clearly in an offside position when the ball was played.
The Red Devils sailed into second place with the win, but there was a growing sense of anger in the ranks of The Claret and Blue Army at both Bilic and his assistants and the officiating of the clash. However, a far more embarrassing encounter with a Manchester club was to follow just five days later.
For Hammers fans, the less said about the F.A Cup tie with Manchester City on Friday 6th January 2017, the better. The London Stadium was filled to the brim for the atmospheric encounter under the lights, but the mood was soon killed by a strong Citizens side.
Pep Guardiola’s men took the lead just half-an-hour into the tie when Yaya Toure converted from the spot after Angelo Ogbonna brought down Pablo Zabaleta inside the area. It was two for the visitors five-minutes before the break, as Havard Nordtveit turned the ball past Adrian and into his own net from a Bacary Sagna delivery.
City were soon running away with it on the very stroke of half-time in making it three through talisman David Silva’s neat conversion from a Raheem Sterling cross. Disgruntled Hammers poured through the exits as the second period begun, with Sergio Aguero becoming City’s third highest goalscorer with a flick from a skewed Toure effort. £50 million centre-back John Stones netted his first goal in sky blue, as the visitors rounded off their stellar victory and left blushing faces in our dugout. Slaven Bilic had a lot to answer to after the humiliating defeat, but little did he or anyone else know of the stressful week that was to follow.
French midfielder Dimitri Payet had quickly become a fan favourite in a Hammers shirt the previous year and despite his poorer form in the commencing season, he was still the first name on the team sheet for Bilic. However, this was all to change rapidly as one of the biggest transfer sagas in English Football history begun.
The France international was understood to be unhappy with his treatment at The London Stadium and had handed in a dramatic transfer request following the Manchester City defeat. A somber faced Croat in Bilic was left to announce this news to the world in his pre-Crystal Palace press conference, sparking weeks of speculation. Payet was wildly scrutinized by many a fan and pundit alike, being branded as “greedy” and “snake-like”, finally completing a £25 million move back to Ligue 1 club Marseille in the final few days of January.
While so much of the attention was on matters off the field, there was still the matter of a must-win home clash with Sam Allardyce’s Palace on Saturday 14 January. The likes of Andre Ayew and Cheikhou Kouyate being away at The AFCON only added pressure to an under the cosh squad, who delivered when it mattered thanks to some magic against the South-Londoners.
The encounter started in usual London Stadium fashion-a dull and drab first-half with little in the way of chances for either side. However, there would be one huge opportunity that was wasted by Ex-Hammer James Tomkins, when he could not convert a Yohan Cabaye free-kick from close-range.
The missed chance would be punished with around 20 minutes to play, as the whole of Stratford breathed a collective sigh of relief. A fantastic run by Antonio was well-picked out by skipper Mark Noble and the England man was left to thread a superb ball into Sofiane Feghouli – who had had his United red card revoked – to tap home for a deserved lead. The advantage was doubled and win sealed by a spectacular piece of skill and individual brilliance from the unlikely source of Andy Carroll. The former Liverpool man rose to meet an Antonio cross with a stunning over-head kick that shocked the footballing world and Wayne Hennessey in the Palace net.
With the win safely secured, Manuel Lanzini rounded off a stunning afternoon in tough circumstances with a delightful chip. Now up to 12th place in the league and brimming with confidence, the boys would travel North for the final clash of January.
A tough trip to The Riverside lay in waiting, but another incredible and surprising display was to follow. Middlesbrough were struggling in the bottom three and struggling for any real inspiration, as we played on their weaknesses for only our third Premier League away win of the season.
Andy Carroll took advantage of some poor defending from the home side to nod us into the lead on nine minutes from a Manuel Lanzini corner. However, the hosts soon levelled, as Cristian Stuani tapped in a Calum Chambers delivery. Carroll was to notch his first ever away Premier League double just before the break, after latching onto a poor piece of Victor Valdes handling.
A resilient Boro threatened in the second period, but could never quite find a leveler, despite the encouragement of their home crowd. Argentine flop Jonathan Calleri sealed the deal in added time with his heavily deflected one and only League goal as a Hammer. The impressive victory made it back to back wins and lifted us into the top-half of the table for the first time since August, prompting a collective sigh of relief across Hammers fans up and down the land.
January’s final weekend brought time for vital rest for both Slaven Bilic and his squad, but with most of the Football World wondering whether we were in a relegation battle or a fight for Europa League, another torrid period was set to start.