Good afternoon! Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole for today's late Premier League kickoff as Dick Advocaat takes charge of Sunderland for the first time against West Ham United at Upton Park. Both sides have struggled for results recently and will be desperate to stop the rot with a victory here, so we should be in for an interesting encounter. Let's start with a look at the home side...
Things are looking increasingly grim for West Ham as the season approaches its end, with manager Sam Allardyce's position coming under intense speculation in recent weeks. He is out of contract this summer and reports suggest that he won't be offered a new deal at Upton Park. As fate would have it, Sunderland are one of the clubs who have been heavily linked with him, and it could be that we see Allardyce in the opposition dugout in this fixture next season.
Allardyce would be justified in thinking that he has done enough to keep his job, however, with West Ham enjoying a brilliant first half to the season. There was even talk earlier in the campaign of a surprise bid for Champions League football this season and they were in and around the top four up until the turn of the year, but their from has drastically tailed off and they now seem to be out of contention for a European berth.
One of the most frustrating things for a manager can be when a good season peters up in the closing months, and that is exactly what looks like happening to the Hammers. They are now 10th in the table and closer to the relegation zone than they are to the top four. They won't be dragged into the mire at the bottom, that is for sure, but they could have a battle on their hands in terms of a top-half finish, which many would have felt was guaranteed after the start they made.
If they are to cling on to their place in the top half then they simply must improve. They are without a win in their last eight matches in all competitions and have picked up only three points from the last 21 available in the league. Their last victory in the top flight came back on January 18, and that 3-0 win over Hull City remains their only triumph in their 12 matches since before Christmas.
In fairness to the Hammers, they have had a torrid run of fixtures in recent weeks, with Liverpool, Manchester United, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal providing their last seven opponents. Sunderland are the easiest opposition they have had in some time, on paper at least, so Allardyce will be hoping that his side can end the season on a high note having muddled through that tricky spell.
The Irons were easily beaten by Arsenal in a London derby last weekend, with Giroud, Ramsey and Flamini all on the scoresheet in a 3-0 win for the Gunners at the Emirates. That was the second consecutive match in which West Ham have failed to score, and surprisingly they haven't fired three blanks in a row since October 2008. No team has scored more goals outside the top seven in the league this season, but Allardyce needs his players to rediscover that scoring touch sooner rather than later.
Their home form has been particularly disappointing in recent weeks, with West Ham managing just one win from their last six Premier League outings at Upton Park. They have lost three in that run, which stretches back to December 20, with the aforementioned victory over Hull their only three-point haul in that time. That comes after a seven-match unbeaten streak in front of their own fans that included six wins.
The Hammers are in poor form going into the game, then, but they can take some solace in the fact that Sunderland are faring no better. The Black Cats continue to battle against relegation and have decided to turn to Dick Advocaat in an attempt to save their Premier League status this season. Gus Poyet worked wonders in keeping the club in the top flight last season, but last weekend's first-half collapse against Aston Villa was the final straw for the Uruguayan.
Advocaat's tenure is expected to only last the nine games between now and the end of the season, but the quick-fix brings vast experience to the Stadium of Light. The 67-year-old becomes the Premier League's oldest current manager, while he has nine major club honours to his name and has managed in two World Cups and two European Championships. In all his well-travelled career, this is his first stint in England, although he did spend a hugely successful spell in charge of Rangers.
He has a number of things to fix during his short time in charge of the club, and chief among them will be goals. The Black Cats average less than a goal per game in Poyet's 60 league matches at the helm, while only Aston Villa have scored fewer so far this season. That lack of goals is the main reason why Sunderland have only won four league games this season, while Poyet only won 14 of his 60 in charge of the club, drawing 21 and losing 25. A whopping 14 of those draws have come in the current campaign.
Sunderland will be hoping that Advocaat's arrival breathes new life into the team and instils some much-needed confidence following events at the Stadium of Light last weekend. Sunderland were 4-0 down against goal-shy Aston Villa before half time, resulting in a mass walkout in the first half from fans. It was undoubtedly the low point of Poyet's reign and proved to be the final straw for the board as they predictably sacked the Uruguayan following such a dismal display against a fellow struggler.
The Black Cats are without a win in their last six Premier League games and seven in all competitions, a run that stretches back to the end of January when they beat Burnley 2-0. Like West Ham, they have only won once in the 12 games since Christmas, while even more worryingly they have only scored once in their last six outings. Advocaat certainly has a lot of work to do.
Things are no better when looking solely at away form, with Sunderland winless in their last six on the road in the Premier League. Indeed, they have won just twice on their travels all season - only Burnley and QPR have managed fewer victories - while they have failed to even score in half of their 14 away outings.
There is a simple correlation behind Sunderland's troubles in front of goal this season. They have only managed 204 shots in the entire campaign so far which, why you consider that Manchester City topped 40 in the early kickoff against West Brom today, is a fairly miserly figure. Unsurprisingly, it is the lowest in the top flight, and one of Advocaat's first instructions may simply be to have more efforts. If you don't shoot, you don't score, after all.
TEAM NEWS: The teams are in for both sides, and Advocaat is looking to solve that lack of goals by naming an attacking lineup that includes a return to Upton Park for Jermain Defoe. Fletcher and Wickham also start, while Adam Johnson is on the bench. West Ham, meanwhile, make just one change as Jenkinson returns to replace O'Brien.
What can we make of those two sides, then? Well, it is no surprise to see Allardyce bring Jenkinson back into the starting XI this afternoon. The full-back was ineligible against parent club Arsenal last week but has been the Hammers' first choice on the right side of defence all season, so he was always expected to start again today. He is the only change to the side that was beaten so comprehensively by the Gunners.
It is elsewhere in defence that West Ham's main problems lie at the moment, with Winston Reid still sidelined and Tomkins potentially out for the remainder of the season with a dislocated shoulder. Kouyate fills in as a makeshift centre-back again as a result, while behind him Adrian starts despite dislocating his finger in the warm-up for the Arsenal game. He played through the pain on that occasion and starts between the sticks again here.
Song will look to protect that defence alongside Noble in midfield, while the likes of Nolan, Jarvis and Downing will look to provide more of an attacking threat for the Hammers after two consecutive blanks. Downing has arguably been West Ham's standout player this season, but like the rest of the team, he has gone off the boil a little in recent weeks and would love a return to form before the end of the campaign.
Up front, Sakho leads the line again, with Carroll and Valencia sidelined. Sakho can be a real handful at times, and his willingness to run the channels and chase seemingly lost causes makes him a nightmare for defenders. However, he does generally seem to work better with a player alongside him up front, so the likes of Downing and Nolan will need to provide that support. Downing and Jarvis, could also be influential if they can find the striker with crosses into the box as Sakho has already shown that he is more than capable in the air.
As for Sunderland, they start with three attackers as Advocaat looks to make a statement in his first game as manager. Defoe, who began his career with West Ham but has scored four goals in his last five Premier League appearances against the club, is one of those attackers and will be keen to get back on the scoring trail here. Fletcher and Wickham have been a little hit-and-miss this season - mainly miss, it must be said - but they can also be very difficult to contain on their day.
Perhaps the biggest news for Sunderland comes from the bench, however, with Johnson returning to the squad having had his suspension lifted following his arrest under suspicion of having sex with an underage girl. It could be seen as something of a controversial call from Advocaat, and it will be interesting to see how the fans respond should Johnson come on, but the winger is certainly capable of having a game-changing impact off the bench.
The Sunderland defence has had some torrid times this season, such as conceding eight to Southampton and four in one half to Aston Villa, and it would be understandable if their confidence was a little low going into this match. The likes of O'Shea and Brown have enough experience to help them through such tough times, however, and Advocaat has expressed his faith in the defence by naming exactly the same back five that played against Villa.
PREDICTION: We're 10 minutes from kickoff at Upton Park, which means that it is time for a prediction! A new manager usually gives a team a boost, and Advocaat seems to be a shrewd appointment to keep Sunderland in the Premier League this season. West Ham have been in poor form, but their fixtures also need to be taken into account in that respect. I am expecting improvement from both sides, and I can see them cancelling each other out in a 1-1 draw.
Sunderland have lost just one of their last seven games against West Ham, drawing three and winning three, but the gap between the two clubs hasn't often been as great as it is at the moment during that spell. The reverse fixture ended 1-1 at the Stadium of Light, with Jordi Gomez converting from the spot for the Black Cats and Downing finding the net for the visiting Hammers.
These two sides did play out a 0-0 draw on Sunderland's last visit to Upton Park in December 2013, but we can expect a couple of goals today. That was the only goalless draw between these two sides in their last 30 league and cup meetings and, while both have struggled in the final third in recent weeks, I am expecting someone to find the breakthrough once more today.
The players are out and we're just a couple of minutes away from kickoff in Advocaat's first match in charge of Sunderland as he looks to retain their Premier League status over the final nine matches of the season. Can he get off to a winning start here in East London?
It is West Ham who have started the brighter here, dominating the ball early on and putting a number of high balls into the Sunderland box. The visitors have dealt with them comfortably so far, but that aerial route looks to be something West Ham may target today.
Sunderland enjoy their own spell of possession as they look to settle into the match in the early stages. Wickham seems to be floating in something of a free role behind Fletcher and Defoe at the moment.
SAVE! Sunderland break forward quickly as Gomez plays a long ball forward for Defoe to race on to. The former West Ham man lifts his head up and spots Wickham in the area before finding him with a good cross. Wickham's first touch is good to control it and he then fires a powerful effort towards goal that stings the palms of Adrian at the near post.
It is West Ham who have seen more of the ball in the opening exchanges of this match, but Sunderland have shown one or two signs of being dangerous on the break. That is something Allardyce will need to be wary of with the pace of Defoe.
An early concern for Sunderland as Brown goes down and stays down after a fairly innocuous looking aerial battle with Sakho. He is struggling to put any weight on his right leg right now and it doesn't look like he will be able to continue here.
CHANCE! Big chance for Sunderland to break the deadlock! Kouyate misjudges a header and Defoe is immediately on his bike. The ball is nodded through to him and he only has the keeper to beat, but he steers a side-footed volley a few yards high and wide when he should have done better.
Good work from Sakho as he spins Vergini and gets the wrong side of the sub before driving into the box. His cross is low towards the front post, but O'Shea reads the danger and is there to put it behind for a corner.
CHANCE! Decent chance for the Hammers as Sakho chases a poor ball from Cresswell and turns it into a good one. He beats Van Aanholt before squeezing it back to Nolan, who draws a save from Pantilimon at the near post.
CLOSE! Again the hosts come close as first Downing drills a low ball right across the face of goal before Sakho comes close with a header. The striker rose above O'Shea and got enough power on his effort to worry the Sunderland keeper, but it goes just wide.
The pressure continues to build on the Sunderland defence as Downing again puts a ball into the box that tests the opposition. It is just too high for Kouyate, however, and curls through for a goal kick.
The hosts are in control of the game now, keeping Sunderland on the back foot and spending most of their time in the opposition half. Allardyce will want his side to make the most of this period in the ascendency as Sunderland have already shown that they are a threat on the break.
Larsson tries a long ball forward over the top, and again it looks like causing West Ham problems as Defoe races off the last shoulder. Kouyate gets back to make a challenge on this occasion, but that is a couple of times they have been caught out by simple long balls forward already.
Cresswell whips a really good delivery into the box towards Sakho, but Pantilimon does well to get his fist to the ball. It isn't the most convincing of punches, but Sakho is deemed to have fouled the keeper anyway and a free kick is given.
West Ham win another corner, which gives them yet another chance to put the ball into the box. Having a goalkeeper who is almost seven foot tall helps in such situations, though, and Pantilimon again comes to claim the subsequent delivery.
Better from Sunderland in the last couple of minutes as they begin to see move of the ball inside the West Ham half. Wickham makes progress down the left channel, but he is tracked by Jenkinson, who makes the tackle and wins a goal kick to boot.
SAVE! Well, I said this match has been lacking in quality so far, but Song almost lights it up with a moment of magic. The ball dropped to the on-loan midfielder around 25 yards from goal and he fired a first-time volley towards the bottom corner. He catches it well enough and it kicks up just in front of the keeper, but it is still a fairly routine stop.
Brilliant play from Jarvis as he works a yard on the left before swinging a very dangerous ball into the box. Pantilimon comes out to make a brave claim and collides with Nolan, who is claiming that he was held back by Larsson inside the area.
Jarvis has looked quite dangerous for the hosts whenever he has been able to get the ball at his feet and run at the defence. He has been the best outlet for the Hammers so far, while Wickham and Defoe have looked most dangerous for Sunderland.
It's all a little flat inside Upton Park at the moment. The fans aren't making much noise at all and the players on the field aren't giving them anything to shout about either. It has been a pretty dull game so far.
Well, it is an improvement for Sunderland I suppose. They were 4-0 down at this stage last week, but it remains goalless at the break at Upton Park as neither the Black Cats nor West Ham could break the deadlock in that first half. It wasn't the best 45 minutes of football you will see this season, it must be said, but the result is the main thing for both sides this afternoon.
Chances have been few and far between, but the best of the lot came for the visitors as Defoe was sent through on goal following an error from Kouyate. The striker only had the keeper to beat with the ball bouncing through, but he fired his volley high and wide when he should have done better. It wasn't the easiest chance, but Defoe would have felt that he should have done better.
Defoe running off the last shoulder has been Sunderland's best outlet so far, with early long balls forward causing the West Ham defence a few problems. Defoe has more support than he had last week with Wickham and Fletcher both eager to get up with the striker, but it is his pace that has been the visitors' main weapon so far.
West Ham, meanwhile, have seen more of the ball but are yet to do much with it. They have put 25 crosses into the Sunderland box in that first half, which is already more than their average across 90 minutes for the whole season, but overall Sunderland have stood up to the aerial barrage well. Sakho did get one chance from that route, however, as he placed his header narrowly past the post having beaten O'Shea in the air.
Wickham and Defoe have threatened with shots that drew saves from Adrian, while at the other end Pantilimon has been called upon to deny Nolan and Song. The latter provided the one moment of real quality in the first half with a fine first-time volley from 25 yards that tested the Sunderland keeper low to his right. There hasn't been anything that the keeper's wouldn't have expected to save so far, however.
KICKOFF: Sunderland get us back underway for the second half and the first thing to note is that West Ham have made a change, with Carlton Cole coming on for Jarvis. That is an interesting change from Allardyce.
SHOT! An early shooting opportunity for the hosts as Wickham is given time around 25 yards from goal, cutting infield before wrapping his foot around it and firing one towards the top corner. It goes far too high, however, and is never testing Adrian.
That half-time change has seen West Ham switch to a diamond formation, which should allow Downing to get into the game more. He has moved infield to the tip of the diamond, while Cole has gone up top alongside Sakho.
Gomez slides in strongly on Kouyate, leaving the makeshift defender in a heap on the floor. It was actually a good tackle from the Sunderland man, who is unfortunate to be penalised, but Kouyate did feel it and is not moving very freely at the moment.
CLOSE! Sunderland win a corner and O'Shea rises well to meet the outswinging delivery just inside the box. He steers a header into a dangerous area that Rodwell hooks towards goal, but it is easy for the keeper. West Ham break quickly at the other end and swing a beauty of a cross into the box that Sakho glances just wide. That is about as close as the hosts have come.
This really is a tough one to call at the moment. It has been a very even encounter so far and neither team can claim that they deserve to be in the lead, but one goal could be enough to settle this one.
Some of West Ham's defending against Defoe has been a little suspect so far, and that is something to keep an eye on. They are playing a high line despite the striker's pace and often looking to step up rather than drop deep to prevent him running through on goal.
Sunderland are enjoying a decent spell of possession at the moment as they look to build a bit of pressure on the West Ham defence. They have only really threatened on the break so far, with West Ham dictating the tempo of the match for the most part.
Good pressure from Cole as he chases down Pantilimon following a nervy Vergini back-pass. The Sunderland keeper is forced onto his weaker left foot and can only concede an attacking throw-in for the Hammers, but that comes to nothing.
Possession has been split 50-50 in this second half so far, which is an improvement for Sunderland. There is still a severe lack of quality in the final third, however, and as if to strengthen that point Rodwell fires a long-range effort well off target.
Another hint of a penalty appeal for the hosts as Song bursts into the box from deep before being shoved off the ball. Mason is having none of it and rightly so, but the pressure is building on the Sunderland defence. This is a good spell for the hosts.
Good work from Wickham down the right channel as he earns a yard of space before looking to clip a cross in to Fletcher. It strikes Noble and there are tentative claims for a handball, but again the officials get it right.
SAVE! Van Aanholt looks to provide a moment not really befitting of this match as he unleashes a fine effort from range that has all sorts of movement on it as it flies towards goal. It is probably ending up just wide of the post, but Adrian is not to know that and makes a very good save to tip it wide.
A hint of a chance for the Hammers as Jenkinson finds a bit of space inside the box, but he seems reluctant to shoot. He gives it back to a teammate and the ball is eventually worked all the way to the opposite flank, and Sakho can't get enough on the resulting cross.
Sunderland are getting themselves back into the match again now following a good spell of West Ham pressure. Neither side can really say they deserve to win this match with just eight minutes remaining.
PENALTY SHOUT! A late shout for a penalty from West Ham as the ball skips off the surface and appears to strike Johnson on the arm. The fans and many of the players make a fairly vociferous appeal, but Mason waves it away yet again.
West Ham have the lead just two minutes from time! Nene competes for a ball on the edge of the box and it drops for Noble, who lifts it forward for Sakho. The striker has been feeding off scraps all game but he makes this chance count, firing a crisp strike into the bottom far corner. Is there any way back for Sunderland now?
West Ham see out the victory and inflict defeat on Dick Advocaat in the Sunderland manager's first game in charge of the club. It was Sakho who got the only goal of the game just two minutes from time to give the Hammers their first victory for over two months, while Sunderland are now winless in seven in the league.
That is all we have time for this evening! Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole for this match at West Ham leave it late to beat Sunderland 1-0 at Upton Park in Dick Advocaat's first game in charge of the Black Cats. I will leave you with our match report, and be sure to stick around for reaction, analysis and player ratings. From me, though, it is goodbye for now!