David Moyes has raised doubt over Fabian Balbuena’s involvement in West Ham United’s starting line-up for Sunday’s Premier League trip to Sheffield United, where Michail Antonio could make his return from injury.
Balbuena was the last of the Irons first-team to return from the November international break having travelled to South America to represent Paraguay in their CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying campaign, clocking a 12,500-mile round trip.
The centre-half added a further 3,000-miles to his odometer by flying to Buenos Aires and back for a showdown with Argentina, leaving Moyes questioning whether or not the 29-year-old should feature at Bramall Lane.
“There is a concern with how long he has been away and he wasn’t arriving back until very late in the afternoon [on Thursday], so it is something we need to look at,” Moyes told football.london. “The one good thing is that we do have an extra day to prepare as we are playing on Sunday so that gives us a little bit of extra time.”
So, with doubt over Balbuena’s involvement, here’s a predicted line-up Moyes could favour as he strives to win successive Premier League games for the second time this season…
While addressing Balbuena’s situation, Moyes confirmed that Issa Diop or summer arrival Craig Dawson will start in place of the 16-cap international if he is not fit to play.
Diop lost his place in the side earlier in the season after testing positive for coronavirus and has featured for just 27-minutes since, with Moyes persisting with a backline of Angelo Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell beside Balbuena with Lukasz Fabianski in goal.
That pairing returned wins over Leicester City and London rivals Fulham and draws with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, while restricting Liverpool to nine shots – five on target – in defeat at Anfield, far below the Reds’ division-high average 16.6 a game.
Dawson, meanwhile, is yet to feature outside of the EFL Cup since joining the Hammers from Watford on loan in the summer, but will find himself facing an uphill struggle to start ahead of Diop, who Jose Mourinho lauded as “a monster who dominated in the duels” after a 3-1 defeat while in charge of Manchester United.
Moyes is unlikely to favour wholesale changes to his starting line-up after just one defeat in their last six Premier League games, meaning continued roles at full-back for Arthur Masuaku and Vladimir Coufal while Tomas Soucek and Declan Rice continue at centre-mid.
Rice excelled during the international break while representing England in the UEFA Nations League, with the 21-year-old producing a goalscoring display while earning his 13th-cap at home to Iceland that more than caught Moyes’ attention.
“The big thing is that he’s improving with the team here – It’s been great,” the Hammers boss said. “He’s learning an awful lot from the people he’s around. His performance for England was exceptional – there were a lot of young England players on the pitch but his performance was so good.
“He’s maturing. He’s picking up from good people, like Mark Noble. I think from Declan’s point of view it’s continuing to learn – see what good leaders look like. We’re trying to get him to take more leadership, more responsibility, and he’s certainly doing that.”
Moyes has also been full of praise for wingers Pablo Fornals and Jarrod Bowen, stating that the pair are playing too well to be dropped so that he can offer Said Benrahma his first start.
“The boys in the team are playing really well [so] it’s not easy to say sorry, we’re bringing someone else in,” said Moyes, via quotes by the Evening Standard. “So, I think still bringing him in gently, slowly is the best way, and he’s been away for a couple of weeks with Algeria, so we’ve not had him on site all the time.”
Fornals has provided two goals and two assists so far this season, while Bowen ranks as West Ham’s join-top scorer in the league with three strikes but has not fired home since October’s win away to Leicester, failed to register any shots against Man City or Liverpool and missed the target with three of his four shots versus Fulham, per WhoScored.
One change Moyes could not rule out while speaking to the media ahead of facing Sheffield United was the return of Antonio, with the striker making good progress in training as he strives to recover from a hamstring injury that forced his withdrawal at home to Man City.
“He’s back doing training. We’ve got a couple of days yet to see how he is. The truth is I couldn’t give you a complete answer, but he’s getting much closer that’s for sure,” said Moyes.
West Ham supporters will be hopeful that Antonio can be passed fit to start with the 30-year-old joint-top scorer with Bowen and responsible for the joint-most shots (18), most shots on target (9), second-most successful dribbles (13) and aerial duels won (17) by a West Ham player in the league this term, per WhoScored.
Sebastien Haller was unable to prove himself in Antonio’s absence to warrant another start under Moyes, who saw the £115,000-a-week man signed by Manuel Pellegrini for a club-record £45m offer zero shots against Man City or Liverpool, one shot on target against Fulham, no successful dribbles in any of his seven appearances and misplace at least 40% of his passes in each game featuring more than two minutes this season, per WhoScored.