West Ham United-Sunderland Preview
Top-eight finish? How about top of the Premier League?
Slaven Bilic could have West Ham United surprisingly tied for the league lead Saturday if they can beat woeful Sunderland, who are reportedly considering Dick Advocaat's job.
After two seasons with Besiktas in Turkey, Bilic was unexpectedly named West Ham manager to begin building the club towards a move to the Olympic Stadium next season.
Co-owner David Sullivan claimed the logical first step was a top-eight finish in 2015-16.
So far, Bilic is more than delivering.
The Hammers (4-1-2) are third in the league, two points behind Manchester City and three back of Manchester United. They're also beating the creme de la creme of the Premier League with away wins over City, Arsenal and Liverpool.
"We can still improve. Of course we can, and we know how to improve," Bilic told the team's official website. "Our home games are the bread, and we've got four points in the last two home games but from our away games we have three wins, but it's more than that. It's who we beat but also how we won.
"Before the season started no one said we were a big team."
West Ham proved resilient last weekend when Cheikhou Kouyate scored in stoppage time to salvage a 2-2 draw with Norwich City.
Andy Carroll assisted on Kouyate's goal after Bilic subbed him on in the second half in just his second league match since returning from an ankle injury.
"I don't want to tame Andy Carroll, he is like a boxer, he fights for everything," Bilic said. "We can only protect him by easing him back in, once he's on the pitch, that's the way he plays, and that's the way we want him to play."
Carroll scored and assisted on another goal in a 2-1 win in his most recent visit to the Stadium of Light on March 31, 2014.
While Bilic's success with West Ham is raising eyebrows around the world, Advocaat's Sunderland are only causing shrugged shoulders.
The Black Cats (0-2-5) are at the bottom of the league, and they've been outscored 10-1 while losing four straight matches across all competitions - including a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United last weekend.
The slide has led to reports that a change could be coming with former Napoli and Inter boss Walter Mazzarri as a leading candidate to replace Advocaat.
Despite that possibility, Sunderland are aware that things need to change on the pitch Saturday.
"We need points now and as players we understand that; everyone is trying and I think we just have to approach it like any other game, don't get too tense and try to relax," forward Jermain Defoe told the team's official website.
"We're at home and we need to start the game quick," he added.
Defoe is hoping to return from a hamstring injury that sidelined him against United. However, he's also looking to score for the first time in four matches, and he has six goals in 13 league meetings with the Irons.
Jack Rodwell is looking to return from an ankle injury that sidelined him last weekend.
"It's been a very frustrating start," Rodwell said. "There's confidence there because we train with each other every day and we know exactly what everyone can do. I think we've got a better squad than last season."