Much ado about West Ham-Arsenal derby, says Richard Buxton
Bilic v Wenger, Payet v Oezil, this derby has so much at stake, and a lot to offer
WEST HAM v ARSENAL
(Today, 7.45pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
High stakes at high noon, so much is on the line in the latest London Derby.
Defeat tonight will deal a hammer blow to West Ham's hopes of Champions League qualification and a loss for the visitors will almost certainly end their chance of landing the English Premier League title.
Slaven Bilic wants to test his burgeoning managerial skills against the best in Europe. Arsene Wenger is desperate to be an English king again and the Hammers and Gunners will be desperate.
Much has changed since their opening-day meeting.
On the back of that infamous defeat at the Emirates Stadium, Wenger's side have recaptured some semblance of their former glory on the field, although they have met some stumbling blocks along the way.
Mesut Oezil has flourished, having removed himself from Reece Oxford's pocket in that August reversal, with the German offering qualities which have often saved Arsenal's season.
West Ham, meanwhile, have carried on as if eager to prove that shock win over Arsenal was no fluke.
Spearheaded by the brilliance of Dimitri Payet, Bilic's side have continued to show signs of their promise in the club's final season at their beloved Upton Park.
Bilic has already got the better of Wenger once before; in that 2-0 encounter.
Repeating the feat eight months on will confirm that the pupil has usurped his former mentor.
During his formative years in management, the Hammers boss sought the advice of his Arsenal counterpart.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Wenger's tutelage is that the Croat has since transformed the fortunes of one of his cross-city rivals.
While Bilic's future burns bright, Wenger's powers have continued to fade even if the Gunners are in third spot in the Premiership standings.
The Frenchman continues to believe that leaders Leicester City can still be caught despite holding an 11-point advantage against his side's solitary game in hand.
He knows it can be done, he wants to heap the pressure on a Leicester side that have never been in this position.
Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck have emerged as key components in his team but Oezil remains their greatest salvation.
Recording 18 assists - more than any other EPL player this term - he is the chief reason Wenger continues to believe.
Both creative and consistent; the one-time Real Madrid playmaker epitomises everything that the modern Arsenal are not.
He cost £42.5 million ($80.75m) as the north Londoners continue to buy big.
West Ham, instead, have been scouting smart.
Barely 18 months Oezil's senior, Payet has made his £10.7m capture look increasingly like small change.
Set-pieces have become as valuable as penalties to West Ham, with the France international's impressive ability.
Not since David Beckham has an EPL player continually struck a dead ball with such clinical effect.
Switzerland, Albania and Romania, France's Euro 2016 group opponents, should expect more of the same when this summer's Finals take place in the 29-year-old's homeland.
Payet has already forced his way into the reckoning in Didier Deschamps' starting 11, but the jury remains out whether he can yet be crowned the undisputed master craftsman of English football.
Oezil and Riyad Mahrez, still flying high in Leicester's title-winning surge, stand in his way.
Eradicating one of his closest competitors today may hasten that debate.
We know that we need nearly the perfect run and we know as well that we don’t look only in front of us, we look behind us as well. As long as it’s mathematically possible, there’s a strong possibility we can catch Leicester.
- Arsene Wenger on Arsenal’s Premier League title chances
Bilic: payet in same league as Beckham
Slaven Bilic believes Dimitri Payet's stunning free-kicks this season have put him in the same bracket as David Beckham.
West Ham's French star Payet has scored from three spectacular efforts from outside the area in the last month alone.
He followed up a 30-metre free-kick at Manchester United in the FA Cup with a carbon copy for France against Russia.
And Payet arguably topped the lot with his looping, dipping shot into the opposite corner in the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace last weekend.
Beckham made his name as a free-kick specialist with United and England, his most famous effort coming against Greece to fire the Three Lions to the 2002 World Cup.
And Hammers boss Bilic feels his £10.7 million ($20.3m) signing from Marseille is now in the same league as "Goldenballs" himself.
"They are both great free-kick takers," said Bilic. "You can't say that anyone was better than Beckham at taking free-kicks.
"But then again you can say the same thing about Dimitri this season. In no time we can name five or six great ones.
"The last one was unbelievable. Then for France, (at) Old Trafford and then (against) Blackburn and Bournemouth. It all happened in a couple of months.
"The tempo he is putting them in is amazing."
Payet is certain to take aim again should the Hammers be awarded a foul within 30 metres of goal when Arsenal visit Upton Park today.
Bilic says the midfielder's only problem now is that every time he steps up to take one, he is expected to score - even in training.
"A couple of days ago he put the ball down and now everybody - even the groundsman - is expecting every time he shoots to put it in the top corner," revealed Bilic.
"And if it isn't in the top corner then all of us are quite disappointed.
"He is not one of those players who is always practising them for 20 minutes after training, but every time he has a chance in a small break between the exercises he likes to try to bend them."
Interestingly, Arsene Wenger turned down the chance to sign Payet this season because the Arsenal manager already had a number of similar players on the books at the Emirates Stadium.
"He has always had top talent, even when in periods he has been a bit up and down," Wenger said. "But he has been very consistent (this season).
"Historically we always had a great number of creative players - we had (Mesut) Oezil, (Santi) Cazorla, (Jack) Wilshere, (Aaron) Ramsey - they are all offensive players and I've certainly forgotten a few, so we had the numbers."
Wenger has been impressed by the form of Payet, who has forged a strong midfield partnership with Cheikhou Kouyate, Mark Noble and Manuel Lanzini since his arrival at West Ham in a £10m move from Marseille.
"West Ham are a tough proposal, yes, away from home," said Wenger, whose side opened the season with a 2-0 home loss to West Ham. - Wire Services.
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