If anyone has said at the start of the season that with nine games to go that West Ham United would be on the verge of the Champions League places, they’d have laughed harder than Jose Aldo did when Conor McGregor was submitted at UFC 196.
But the Hammers are sitting pretty in fifth place in the Premier League table, just one point behind Manchester City, and on course for the most unlikely of European qualifications since Wigan took part in the Europa League in 2013.
If it hadn’t been for Leicester City’s amazing title challenge, West Ham would have been the talk of the league this season but thanks to their last gasp 3-2 win over Everton yesterday, people aren’t forgetting about Slaven Bilic’s side.
Here’s five reasons why the Croatian can lead his team to Europe’s elite club competition:
They Have Dimitri Payet
Undoubtedly the player of the season, Payet has almost single handedly turned West Ham into an excellent side.
Before the season, West Ham chiefs seemed to think that because they’re moving into the new Olympic stadium next season, they should automatically be considered a big club.
Big clubs have big players that people want to see and before Payet was at Upton Park, people weren’t going to go out of their way to see the likes of James Tomkins and co.
But now they have the big attraction, and Payet has been the main reason West Ham aren’t languishing closer to midtable.
Had he not missed two months of the season towards the end of last year – a run in which the Hammers won just once in seven games -, Payet might have dragged his side right into the middle of the title race.
They Have Character
No, it’s not Brendan Rodgers.
West Ham fans have long been thought of as some of the most passionate in the country, but now they have a team that can back it up on the pitch.
2-0 down to Everton at the weekend, a West Ham team of old would have crumbled and ended up losing the game convincingly.
But thanks to the fight of the likes of Mark Noble, Andy Carroll and Payet, the East Londoners came roaring back to nick the three points.
They didn’t give up after Diafra Sakho’s equaliser, instead pushing men forward to try and get the win that would move them to the edge of the Champions League places, and they were rewarded for it.
They Have The Most Underrated Manager In The League
When Sam Allardyce’s contract wasn’t renewed in the summer, West Ham tried to make a statement by bringing in a big name manager.
Rafa Benitez and Jurgen Klopp were mentioned but in the end, they went for former player Bilic and it’s worked out brilliantly.
Appointing a man who knows the club from his time as a player, has the passion to motivate his players, and has the tactical knowledge to back it up was a shrewd move from David Gold and David Sullivan.
When he’s on the touchline, he’s a joy to watch. Kicking every ball and looking like he’d rip your head off if you crossed him, Bilic also knows how to win a game.
He knows how best to use Andy Carroll (something Liverpool failed to work out) and his substitutions won his side the game against Everton at the weekend, moving them closer to the top four in the process.
They Can Score Goals
In the whole of the 2014/15 season, West Ham managed 44 goals. After 29 games this term, they’ve scored 45.
Despite their main strikers (Sakho, Carroll and Enner Valencia) struggling with injuries for most of the season, the Hammers have still found the net regularly enough to get them to the right end of the Premier League table.
The three strikers mentioned only have 11 goals between them, but thanks to the likes of Michail Antonio chipping in with six and Cheikhou Kouyate and Manuel Lanzini (another excellent find, by the way) with four each, the Irons have spread the load well.
Payet remains the main threat (he has eight to his name), but with goals coming from all over the pitch, it means the opposition have to work on nullifying threats from all areas, rather than just one main striker, and that’s a big weapon.
They Can Do It Against The Big Boys
Remember the first day of the season? When West Ham travelled to Arsenal and beat them 2-0?
Well it was no fluke.
This season, the Hammers have beaten Spurs, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea to back up their Reece Oxford inspired first day.
That kind of track record proves they are a real threat to the top clubs, and if they manage to finish in even the top six this summer, more top players will be tempted to join the Hammers revolution.
The future looks bright for Slaven Bilic and his side, and the established ‘Big Four’ may be gone forever.