15 March 2015

West Ham: the 3-0 Dress-Rehearsal. 99% Bayern-free!

If you had watched Saturday's thrashing of West Ham, you might assume that we were top of the league, through to the  FA Cup semi-finals, and punching our tickets to the Champions League quarter-finals. Of course, you'd be only one-third right, but the form we've been in since we last faced AS Monaco has been pretty convincing—especially the last two, winning a bum-clencher at Old Trafford in the FA Cup's Sixth Round Proper and then tearing up West Ham like they were Kleenex™ at a snot-convention. Surely, we rue the routing we endured at the Emirates a few weeks ago, but, as history shows us, we're quite good when we decide to be.

I might be alone in only mentioning our fightback against Bayern in order not to mention it. Yes, we have famously fought back against longer odds, longer ago. While it was historic to go into Allianz Arena and come away with a famous 0-2 win, falling just short of advancing after a 3-1 loss, I hope it's not heresy to suggest that we'd do better to look to the nearer past rather than to that result two years ago. While the squad that will face Monaco on Tuesday may be very similar to the one that faced off against Bayern back then, the spirit feels very different.

For one, I don't think I'm alone in having anticipated—rather than merely hoped for—a win at Old Trafford. Despite the first-leg debacle against Monaco, there's something in the air lately, a je ne sais quoi that I haven't felt from the squad in, well, years. Winning at Old Trafford for the first time in nearly a decade might have unshackled our psyches in a way that few other results could do. No other club has held a hoodoo over us much as those Mancs, and to finally slay them might mean a great deal than progress in that particular cup. Witness as Exhibit A the swash-buckling swagger against West Ham. It wasn't without its warts, of course, but such is to be expected against a squad that at one point harboured ambitions of a top-five finish but is now struggling to stave off relegation. They parked the bus in the first half, daring us to score—a dare that Giroud stepped up to take, and this offers a bit of a template for the match against Monaco.

We know that this stubborn, miserly side specialises in not-scoring (whether that term applies to us or to themselves), and we can expect a full-horrorshow parking of the bus. Then again, that's exactly what Bayern presumed to offer in 2013, and we still found a goal inside of five minutes. This is not to say that we could pull off the same, but, then again, why not? Despite their slide towards irrelevancy and relegation, West Ham still sport one of the better goals-against records in the Prem, and to pick them apart as we did (including a few missed chances from Walcott and a "no, thank you; I'll pass"or two from Özil), augurs very well for our chances on Tuesday. There have been very few other occasions when we've eviscerated a club as thoroughly as we did West Ham, even when the scoreline flattered us even more than Saturday's does. Yes, Aston Villa comes to mind, but so too does Norwich.

The three goals we scored against West Ham do more than match the standard for Tuesday; they raise a banner, a clarion-call for us to do the same and more. Against lesser opponents, we've done far more and with far less at stake. Against Monaco, we can, should, and must go one more than we have against Bayern and AC Milan. We have a chance to stand alone as the only English club to advance to the Champions League quarter-final (okay, okay, so Man City still stand a chance...). Along similar lines, we've climbed to within one point of second place in the Prem, and we are alone among the top-four in continuing to compete in the FA Cup. Man City? Teetering on the brink in both the Champions League and the Prem, ousted from the FA Cup in the Fourth Round Proper by, um, Middlesbrough if that rings any bells. Chelsea? Ousted from the Champions League rather ignominiously by PSG despite nabbing that 1-1 draw at the Parc de Princes and beaten badly by Bradford. Man U, of course, had no Champions League matches this season and were dumped from the FA Cup by none other than Arsenal, and they trail us in the Prem by one precious point.

On one hand, we clearly cannot count our eggs before they hatch. On the other, we must go into Tuesday's clash believing—nay, knowing—that we have more than a snowball's chance in Hell. Monaco will likely show little interest in getting forward to score, so it will all be on us to carve out chances and make the most of them. If we can show anything that resembles the form we've shown in our last three or four matches, it will be Monaco who are wondering what went wrong. If there's a silver-lining to our first-leg feebleness, it's in the realization that we have nothing to lose. That, paired with the formidable form we've shown of late, might just be enough to manhandle Monaco.

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