EPL Best XI – Week 27

zahaWith the title race continuing to hot up, this weekend’s Premier League action saw contenders Liverpool going toe-to-toe with rivals Manchester United, while champions Manchester City took the weekend off from league action to battle Chelsea in Sunday’s Carabao Cup Final. At the lower end of the table, Newcastle hosted Huddersfield in what could be described as a relegation six-pointer. With that said, let us take a look at which players performed the best for their clubs over the past few days.

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Issa Diop rewarded for West Ham performances with France Under 21s return

Issa Diop

On Thursday evening Issa Diop played the full 90 minutes in France Under 21s’ 2-2 draw against Croatia. This is the first time the Frenchman has represented his country since joining the Hammers, yet another signal of how much he has improved in the heart of West Ham’s defence. The centre back played alongside talents such as Arsenal’s Matteo Guendouzi and Mainz goal getter Jean-Phillipe Mateta and is expected to get minutes on Monday, when his side face Spain Under 21s.

After a tough start to life in East London, scoring an own goal on his debut as the Hammers lost 3-1 against Arsenal, he has been highly impressive in the months following that. The moment that seemed to turn his fortunes came against AFC Wimbledon, when he smashed in a strike from outside the box to help West Ham towards their first competitive win of the season.

Since then he and centre back partner Fabian Balbuena (who is now away with Paraguay) have manage to plug the side’s leaky defence with assured performances. There seems to be plaudits heading Diop’s way every time he takes to the pitch, even after a loss for his presence, positional play, well timed tackles and ability to distribute the ball to his team mates well. There have even been rumours linking him to PSG and Manchester United, though he’s stated that his full focus is on West Ham. Having only joined the Hammers from Toulouse in the summer it seems unlikely he would be leaving so soon.

His aims now will likely be to ensure West Ham finish as high in the table as possible and to force his name into the thinking of French national team manager Didier Deschamps, being 21-years-old he won’t be able to carry on in the Under 21s for too much longer. He has a steep task on his hands getting into the team of the world champions though, with the likes of Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti and PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe blocking his path.

Once he returns to East London, Diop and his team mates will be hoping to build on the two clean sheets they’ve kept this season- against Chelsea and Macclesfield Town. The Frenchman played a part in both of these, but will likely be looking to make shut outs with more regularity going forward, even if he can’t be blamed for the lack of them so far.

It’s unlikely the Hammers will get one in their next game, as they face free scoring Manchester City. However, with fixtures against Newcastle United, Cardiff City, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Watford, Southampton and Burnley following that in 2018, it’s expected the Hammers will have at least a few more under their belts by New Year.

With Diop being one of West Ham’s standout performers so far this season, if he is available then there is every chance this could happen. There is a feeling that if he is to get near the French first team then this will need to be the case. Many will dismiss the fact that he could play for France while representing West Ham, but Dimitri Payet showed that it is possible. With the plaudits he’s been receiving, it’s hard to write him off.


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West Ham’s blossoming centre back partnership

Fabián Balbuena

There were plenty of me in claret and blue receiving well deserved plaudits following West Ham’s draw against Chelsea. Lukasz Fabianski made six saves, finding a plethora of ways to keep Chelsea’s efforts out of his net. Declan Rice marshalled the midfield area with a maturity and instinctiveness way above his 19 years. Pablo Zabaleta reminded the world of his quality by keeping the formidable Eden Hazard at bay. With so many impressive performances, the achievements of two men were slightly overlooked: Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena.

West Ham’s centre backs, signed this summer from Toulouse and Corinthians respectively, were solid throughout the match. Aside from one moment where Balbuena made a mess of his clearance (which he made up for), the partners looked in control at all times. This is highly impressive considering the level of opposition. What is even more encouraging is that this doesn’t have the feeling of being a one off, instead this is part of what is a blossoming partnership at the heart of West Ham’s defence.

At the beginning of the campaign it seemed as though the pair would be competing for a spot next to Angelo Ogbonna. However, a combination of the Italian’s uncomfortable moments and the impressive way the new recruits have gone about their business in recent times has seen them take over starting duties.

Neither of the defenders had the best of starts to life in East London though. Fabian Balbuena pipped Diop to a starting spot in the season opener at Anfield. However, to say a place in the match was a reward for him would possibly be overstating things. The Paraguayan visibly struggled and looked off the pace as a devastating Liverpool side relentlessly attacked the Hammers, earning themselves a 4-0 win in the process.

Diop’s debut didn’t go much better. When Marko Arnautovic scored the opener against Arsenal the Frenchman will surely have been dreaming of a debut to remember. However, the side collapsed as they succumbed to a 3-1 loss. The worst moment of the match was reserved for the debutant though. After Diop had made a complete mess of what should have been an easy clearance, the ball eventually made its way to his compatriot Alexandre Lacazette. The Arsenal striker then hit the ball across goal, which bounced off the centre back’s midriff and into the bottom corner.

Things have considerably improved for the pair following those mishaps though, especially since they were paired together. Their first match as a partnership came against Wolves, which the Hammers eventually lost due to a mistake from Carlos Sanchez in the dying moments, which cruelly snatched a clean sheet away from them. That was then followed up by victory away at Everton, then a draw and clean sheet against Chelsea. In both of these matches Balbuena and Diop were the base for what has been a much sturdier and more balanced team than we had seen in the earliest games of the season. Having impressed both individually and as a partnership in recent matches, it is expected that they will be the pairing at the heart of West Ham’s defence for the foreseeable future.

Their next test comes tomorrow against Manchester United, as the Hammers look to extend their unbeaten run to four matches in all competitions.


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EPL Weekend Picks – Round 7

Joao Moutinho

The seventh week of the 2018-19 Premier League season kicks off with West Ham v Manchester United on Saturday. Let’s take a look at 11 players who you should consider adding to your EPL Fantasy team before the weekend.

GK – Ederson (Manchester City)
Only 10 goalkeepers have picked up an average of one point or more in 2018-19 so far, which goes to show how difficult it is to select a reliable scorer of points in between the sticks. Ahead of Manchester City v Brighton on Saturday, you can’t go wrong with 10.00m-rated Ederson.

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Issa Diop to kick on after Carabao Cup goal

Many people thought of Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup second round tie against AFC Wimbledon as a bit of a nothing game. However, it could be a match which has significance in Issa Diop’s West Ham career. The 21-year-old centre back, signed from Toulouse for a short-lived club record fee of £25 million had struggled before this match and looked in need of a pick up.

Following that summer transfer, he didn’t get on the pitch against Liverpool or AFC Bournemouth. He then made his debut for the club against Arsenal, putting in a relatively shaky performance which saw him score a calamitous own goal in the 3-1 loss.

On the back of that defeat, when his side conceded after just two minutes against AFC Wimbledon –as Joe Pigott got away from Diop’s centre back Angelo Ogbonna to head home- he must have had a sinking feeling. However, it was the Frenchman who got West Ham back in the game. In the 63rd minute Felipe Anderson played the ball to him. Diop took a touch out of his feet, confident strode up to the ball and smashed it into the bottom corner from outside the box.

The smile on his face following the strike told a story of its own. He put his hands together to form a triangle (his trademark celebration) and the Frenchman’s face lit up with glee as he was mobbed by his team mates. To get his side back into the game with a moment which highlighted his technical ability will have been a big confidence boost for the centre back.

Strikes from Ogbonna and Chicharito secured the win for the Hammers, but it was Diop’s performance which stood out – even without the goal. His stats from the match show just how dominant he was: 100% tackles won, 92% pass completion, seven aerial duels won and six clearances completed. It may have been against League One opposition, but this was a defensive master class.

Now, with this performance under his belt he has the perfect opportunity to kick on in West Ham’s claret and blue. Diop has already impressed during his career, captaining Toulouse and representing his country at Under 21 level. The Premier League may be a step up from this, but he has certainly got the quality to face off with the best in the league, with the confidence from that strike likely to help bring that out of him.

If selected by Manuel Pellegrini, which is likely, his next test will be against Wolverhampton Wanderers. While the Midlands side and their Portuguese contingent have only managed two points so far, they are still a dangerous outfit. However, with Everton, Chelsea and Manchester United to follow, it is important the Hammers pick up some points in this match. Facing off against the likes of Raul Jimenez and dealing with Ruben Neves’ deliveries, West Ham’s centre backs are going to be vital if the team are to be victorious.

A positive performance and result against Wolves, following the Wimbledon match, should lead to Diop’s false start being forgotten about by many. West Ham have a supremely talented player on their hands in the form of Issa Diop, now is the moment he will kick on and show it.


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West Ham secure first win of the season

It has been a tough start to the season for West Ham, with the club having lost each of their first three league matches. The Carabao Cup offered a chance for them to get their season started, as they faced League One outfit AFC Wimbledon in the Second Round. The team may have made hard work of it at times, but the Hammers secured a 3-1 win at Kingsmeadow and their first win of the season.

The game didn’t get off to a great start for West Ham. In just the second minute Joe Pigott rose above Angelo Ogbonna to head in Mitchell Pinnock’s corner. Adrian got a hand to the ball but was only able to push it into the roof of the net. As the Wimbledon striker peeled away in celebration there will have been a sinking feeling of de ja vu for the Hammers faithful.

However, West Ham were helped out in the 18th minute. Having been booked just five minutes earlier, Rodney McDonald was sent off for a second bookable offence after fouling Javier Hernandez just outside of the box. West Ham were unable to get a goal in the first half though, with the score remaining 1-0 at half time. The scoreline seemingly forced Manuel Pellegrini’s hand, as he brought Pedro Obiang off for Felipe Anderson at half time, a decision which undoubtedly helped to change the game in West Ham’s favour.

The Dons managed to keep West Ham at bay for just over an hour, but the Hammers’ resilience eventually paid off. In the 63rd minute, Anderson played the ball across to Issa Diop, who took a touch out of his feet and smashed the ball into the bottom corner from outside the box. The relief on Pellegrini’s face was clear to see. There was even more joy from Diop though. Having struggled so far in a West Ham shirt, the happiness at getting his first goal for the club was there for all to witness as he brought out his trademark celebration.

Ogbonna could have done a lot better with Wimbledon’s goal, but he made up for that in the 83rd minute. Robert Snodgrass sent a corner ball into the box, with it somehow evading all of Wimbledon’s defenders. The Italian defender was able to capitalise on the loose defending and volleyed it into the gaping net to get the Hammers ahead for the first time in the match.

The victory was secured beyond any reasonable doubt in the 92nd minute. Arthur Masuaku played a ball in behind the Dons defence for Chicharito to run onto. The Mexican rounded Wimbledon goalkeeper Tom King before sending the ball into the goal via the legs of William Nightingale.

This was the final blow of the game, as the referee’s whistle soon confirmed West Ham’s 3-1 victory. The result sees the Hammers progress to the Carabao Cup Round Three, the draw for which will take place at seven o’clock tomorrow night. The fixture for the round will be played during the week commencing 24th September.

In the meantime, the club will be hoping that the momentum from this win can be transferred over to positive league form. Having lost against Liverpool, AFC Bournemouth and Arsenal, the Hammers will now face Wolverhampton Wanderers at home on Saturday. It will be a tough test, but with matches against Everton, Chelsea and Manchester United following this fixture, it is important to get some points on the board sooner rather than later.

Last night’s result won’t do that, but it has got West Ham through to the next round and added some positivity to a tough start.


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Diop and Balbuena to battle it out for centre back spot

Fabián Balbuena

As West Ham prepare for their opening Premier League game of the 2018/19 season, tomorrow at Anfield, they will be aware their defensive performance will be vital. With Liverpool boasting attacking talent such as Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and last season’s Premier League top scorer Mo Salah, the Hammers can expect their backline to be put under intense pressure. It is still unknown who Manuel Pellegrini will opt to deploy in the heart of his defence for the test, a decision which could prove to be very important.

Judging from pre season selections, the Chilean tactician will use a back four with Angelo Ogbonna the most likely name to feature. This means that summer signings Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena are expected to be fighting for a spot alongside the Italian, with both of them hoping to make their competitive debut in claret and blue.

Both of these men have similar skillsets, fitting in with Pellegrini’s blueprint. They are both comfortable on the ball and willing to pass it out from the back, which will help the team to steadily move up the pitch. Diop stands at 6 foot 3 inches, while Balbuena measures 6’1”. Their physical presence translates at both ends, as they are dominant in the way they defend and even got six goals each for their respective clubs last season.

Of the two newcomers, Diop was arguably the one who brought the most excitement upon his arrival in East London. His £22 million transfer fee was a club record, until Felipe Anderson joined just under a month later. At just 21-years-old the Frenchman has represented Toulouse 85 times and captained the Ligue 1 club, as well as featuring for his country at every level between U16 to U21.

Balbuena joined for a much more modest £3.5 million from Corinthians, having worked his way up from the Paraguayan lower leagues before plying his trade in Brazil. The 26-year-old has had success of his own in South America, winning the Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A and representing Paraguay’s national team seven times.

While it was the young Frenchman who arrived with high levels of hype surrounding him, it is arguably Balbuena who has had the better pre season. Since the Paraguayan’s arrival, he has been given more game time than Diop by Pellegrini. He also earned praise in the first of those matches, when he maintained a 100% pass completion rate in the 3-1 win against Aston Villa, something which could be important in Pellegrini’s proposed attacking style.

Despite this, many will expect Diop to be the man selected. He has played at a higher level than Balbuena has in the past and been consistently impressive, which could give him an advantage. However, the main contributing factor will surely be what Pellegrini has seen first hand in training and the pre season friendlies.

It is uncertain who will get to start the match. What is clear though, is that whoever gets the nod will have to be on top of their game if West Ham are to leave Anfield with their first points of the new campaign.


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