December 27, 2014

As the remaining matches at Upton Park dwindle to a precious few, West Ham United are hunting for European play next season. The last of their London derbies Saturday constitutes a must-win affair for both themselves and Arsenal, who still harbour hopes of a late-season title challenge.

Set to move from the Boleyn Ground to Olympic Park next season, playing in either the Europa League or, to dream even bigger, the Champions League, are still possibilities for West Ham (13-12-6) with seven matches remaining. They host Manchester United on Wednesday in an FA Cup quarterfinal replay, giving them the chance to directly qualify for Europa League, but being only three points from the fourth-place Champions League spot and two from the fifth-place Europa berth provides the Hammers multiple routes to continental play in 2016-17.

Yet Slaven Bilic's side have spit the bit some in their last two matches, scrambling for 2-2 draws versus intracity rivals Chelsea and Crystal Palace on either side of the international break. A harsh decision by referee Mark Clattenburg to give Cheikhou Kouyate a straight red card on 67 minutes contributed to the Hammers squandering a lead at Upton Park on Saturday against the Eagles as they conceded the equaliser shortly after being reduced to 10 men.

Before the FA rescinded the red card Tuesday, making Kouyate available for this match, Bilic seethed at the decision he felt cost his team two vital points in the chase for those precious European places.

"It's kind of frustrating that it's happened again," said Bilic, who has seen the FA overturn four of the five red cards his team has been given in post-match reviews. "For me it's very simple to judge that situation. It's nowhere near a red card and I think that anyone who had anything in any part of his life to do with football should say the same thing - there was no red card, no yellow card and it was in England not even a foul.

"Let's say it's a foul and that's it, and it had a big impact on the game."

The draw put a damper on the continuing exquisite form of Dimitri Payet, who had given the Hammers a 2-1 lead in the 41st minute on a jaw-dropping free kick from just beyond the penalty area on the left side that he somehow hooked around a seven-man wall and dropped inside the upper-right corner. The France international has six goals and six assists in his last nine matches for the club, and four of his 12 goals in all competitions this season have come from free kick situations.

"He doesn't really practice them, to be honest," teammate Michail Antonio said. "I'd say that he just saves them for games - that kind of thing. You can see in the games that he has got it in the bag all the time.

"He did it away with France against Russia and he did it again on Saturday, so it's just one of those things that you can't give us free kicks because he will punish you."

Arsenal (17-7-7) know all about punishment, but the gallows' humour among their faithful will tell you that most of it is self-inflicted instead of on the opposition. But the hangover of being eliminated from both the FA Cup and Champions League has finally been rid of with comprehensive victories around the international break.

The Gunners put Watford to the sword last Saturday, avenging their FA Cup quarterfinal defeat with a 4-0 romp. Alexis Sanchez scored on four minutes and set up Alex Iwobi's goal later in the first half as Arsenal played the beautiful football Arsene Wenger lives to see from the coaches' box.

Yet the ugly truth for Wenger and third-place Arsenal is they are still 11 points behind Leicester City, and even with a match in hand on the Foxes, overturning that deficit given their inconsistent form appears too tall an order since they also still must protect their Champions League position with both Manchester clubs and West Ham nipping at their heels.

While a title run seems far-fetched, Wenger remains convinced his team has the make-up to pull off this unlikely charge to the Premier League summit.

"We have only one target now," he told the team's official website. "We have come through difficult periods and the team who finishes top is the team who can continue to perform and get results even when the period is a bit more difficult.

"You have to find a team who clicks at the right moment. You have a whole lot of different reasons (for it happening), because your injured players come back like (Danny) Welbeck and because of the emergence of players like Iwobi."

Arsenal have taken only five points (1-2-3) from their six London derbies with a match against Palace outstanding, while West Ham have claimed 14 (4-2-1) from fellow top-flight London sides.

West Ham snapped a nine-match skid and 14-match (0-2-12) winless streak to Arsenal in the reverse fixture, opening the season with a 2-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium on goals from Kouyate and the since-departed Mauro Zarate on either side of halftime. The Hammers, whose lone double over the Gunners came in 2006-07, are winless in their last seven at Upton Park (0-1-6) in this derby.

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