West Ham's crucial week in Premier League and FA Cup looms large
Football fans who get their enjoyment from the capricious nature of the game will be amused by the announcement this week that West Ham's FA Cup replay against Manchester United at the Boleyn is to be played on Wednesday Apr. 13.
The re-scheduling of the game to avoid conflict with other matches taking place the week before leaves the Hammers with a fascinating week in prospect.
When the fixture list was announced last summer, it's likely most Hammers' fans would have noted the game scheduled for Saturday Apr. 9. A home fixture against local rivals Arsenal is always one for the diary, particularly as spring usually sees the north London club gearing up for their usual attempt to cement a Champions League spot.
It's unlikely, however, many would have earmarked with as much enthusiasm the following week's game against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. Leicester, it should be remembered, had narrowly escaped relegation just weeks before and no-one would have envisaged the 2015-16 fixture as being a top-of-the-table clash.
However, with this most unusual of seasons unfolding, the successive matches against two of the teams vying for the title have come at a significant time. And with the sixth round replay now being slotted into the mid-week on Wednesday, the Hammers now face what will surely be a crucial week in the campaign. It's not stressing things too highly to say that the week from Apr. 9-17 could define West Ham's whole season.
Manager Slave Bilic seemed to tap into a wellspring of hope when he stated earlier this campaign that he would rather win the cup than qualify for Europe. With only a handful of games still to play at the Boleyn before the club move to Stratford, the East End is alive with the dream of seeing the team carrying the old trophy down Green Street for what will be the final time.
It's a fairy-tale ending that may well jar with the aspirations of Manchester United, a team keen themselves to salvage something from a difficult campaign. Even if the Hammers manage to overcome Louis van Gaal's side in what will be an emotional night, Everton still block their way to a final appearance.
Interestingly, for those who still have the romance of football in their soul, the fates could have a further surprise in store should West Ham get to the final. The matches immediately before and after their critical week, involve two home games; firstly by Crystal Place next Saturday and then by Watford three days after the Leicester clash. As either Palace or Watford will be appearing at Wembley in the final on May 21, some optimists are seeing portents of what might be. Those of a more sensible disposition, of course, suggest it's all too early to speculate.
In league terms however, the situation is more transparent. Arsene Wenger will know his Arsenal side can't slip up again against the Hammers. A defeat like the one suffered by his side on the opening day of the season will surely end Arsenal's hopes of winning the title. Leicester, on the other hand, will need to complete the double over Bilic's side to keep their amazing run at the title on track.
Nobody could have foreseen this but, as three games go, it's difficult to remember a time when the Hammers had so much expectation loaded onto a week's football.
Peter Thorne, aka Billy Blagg (@BillyBlaggEsq), is ESPN FC's West Ham blogger.