Hammers and Potters going in different directions

APRIL may be the cruellest month for those sides battling to stay in the Premier League, with some reaching the point of no return, but March is the month when we start to see the movers and shakers at the wrong end of the table.

West Ham’s recent resurgence means they are finally moving in the right direction, but then again when you are rock bottom, the only way is up.

And Stoke City, whom they brushed aside far too easily at Upton Park on Saturday, are starting to shake at the prospect of a relegation battle, sitting as they are just four points above the danger zone.

It is not difficult to determine why these two sides of contrasting styles are moving in opposite directions.

When football’s soothsayers try to work out who will sink and who will swim, they look at the two most obvious factors — the goals for and goals against columns in the table.

And therein lies the nub. The damning statistics that suggest West Ham will survive while Stoke will struggle give Avram Grant hope but will give Tony Pulis sleepless nights unless he can rectify his side’s inability to score, particularly away from home.

Stoke set a new and unwanted club record on Saturday. Six successive away defeats in the league, including 500 minutes without a goal, and nothing on the horizon.

It is not as if Pulis has failed to address the problem.

Kenwyne Jones was signed last summer, but has scored only once since November, and missed a sitter on Saturday after coming off the bench. John Carew was signed from Aston Villa in January but is woefully short of goals, too.

By contrast, West Ham have goals in abundance. Demba Ba, who joined the Hammers after failing a medical at Stoke in January, has now hit four in four games, while Carlton Cole, Victor Obinna and Frederic Piquionne all add to the goal threat, with on-loan Robbie Keane due back from injury soon.

“We feel we have plenty of goals in us now,” said Cole. “We’ve got a really strong line up of strikers and we are playing with the confidence of a team that knows we can score.”

They also have goals from midfield and a better balance in the engine room now that Thomas Hitzlsperger has recovered from the hip injury he sustained last summer, shortly after becoming Grant’s first signing.

‘Der Hammer’ as he is known scored the final goal on Saturday with a trademark thumping shot and had home fans wondering what might have been if he had been fit all season.

Certainly the Hammers will go into next week’s FA Cup game at Stoke confident and refreshed, after a training break in Portugal this week.

“It will be a change of scenery, and we’ve been struggling with our training pitches, so it will be nice to have a good training facility for a few days,” said skipper Matthew Upson.

“At this stage of the season, everyone’s been working hard and training hard so it’s nice to get that mental relaxation as well as a physical break.’’

Stoke, meanwhile, just need a break in front of goal. Apart from two Jon Walters shots and a drive from Rory Delap, all of which Robert Green saved comfortably, they did not threaten, and Pulis said: “We just need one to go in off someone’s backside. You can’t fault the effort, but they are not going in for us.”

His aim is to get to 40 points “as soon as possible”, a sentiment echoed by Asmir Begovic. The goalkeeper was at fault for Ba’s opening goal in the 21st minute, racing out of his area but failing to clear the ball to leave an unguarded net. He had little chance with Manuel da Costa’s thumping header eight minutes later or Hitzlesperger’s late piledriver, but saved well from the German as well as denying Carlton Cole twice.

“We are not safe by any means,” he said. “We have to start picking up points fast, to push away from the relegation zone.”

His captain Ryan Shawcross agreed: “We’re definitely involved in a relegation battle now, but I think we’re going to stay up.”

Pulis believes West Ham will survive: “You look at their players, the likes of Green, Upson, Parker, Bridge, Noble and the front three, plus Hitzlsperger, and you know it’s very surprising they are where they are.”

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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