The Championship season is a long and arduous one but there can be no doubting the significance of Tuesday’s encounter at Upton Park as the business end of the promotion race fast approaches.
If the first 30 games are about jostling for position for a final push in the closing months, then West Ham United and Southampton can think of it as job done to this point.
The Hammers lead the Saints at the top of the table by one point, having played a game less, and with ten weeks of the season left this top-of-the-table clash holds real significance for both sides’ respective Premier League dreams.
For West Ham, those dreams have been well established from day one. Upon being appointed, Sam Allardyce made no attempt to play down expectations, claiming they had to be promoted at the first attempt following last season’s disastrous campaign, and he has staked his reputation on a return to the top flight.
Southampton, on the other hand, are the season’s surprise package. Granted, nobody expected them to struggle, but equally, nobody expected they would be in the automatic promotion places from day one and huge credit must go to Nigel Adkins, who has taken a team from League One last season to the brink of the big time.
There are signs that Southampton are there for the taking by the chasing pack. Yes, they secured a good win at the weekend at home to Burnley but that was only their third league victory in their last ten matches.
Adkins’ famed positive attitude is perfectly suited to the attacking side he has built and their style of play has been a joy to watch.
‘Style of play’ is not often a phrase you see next to Fat Sam’s name unless it is preceded by the word ‘horrible’, but even though the Upton Park regulars are hardly enamoured by performances, the results have been coming and I fancy them to pick up their most important result yet on Tuesday.
Bwin price up West Ham as the 23/20 favourites to do just that, with the draw at 9/4 – the same price as Southampton to claim the win that would see them leapfrog their hosts at the summit of the Championship.
The teams are more evenly matched than the two divisions’ gap that separated them last season would suggest, but in truth West Ham hold the advantage – they have a deeper squad and more experienced manager and I think there could well be a little gap, in terms of points, between the teams come the season’s end.
There are signs that Southampton are there for the taking by the chasing pack. Yes, they secured a good win at the weekend at home to Burnley but that was only their third league victory in their last ten matches and they are being caught in the table.
This is mainly down to their away form. Immaculate at St. Mary’s – they boast the best home record in the division – their record on the road is not that of a team about to win automatic promotion. Adkins’ men have won only four of their 14 away games and have won just one of their last six trips, losing at Bristol City, Doncaster Rovers and Brighton.
It is not the form of champions (Saints have taken only eight points from their last six games) and as West Ham hit form results-wise, I can see another night of struggle on the road for Southampton.
The Irons have won four of their last six matches and have picked up three points in five of their last six home fixtures, drawing the other, and with Southampton generally poor away to the top teams – they have not won in six games away to sides in the top half – the 23/20 on a West Ham victory looks good enough to me.
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