West Ham United U23s travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United tonight in the stand-out fixture of the Premier League 2 Division 2 season so far.
The two sides go into the top-of-the-table fixture with 100 per cent records, having both played and won three games each so far.
Throw in an eye-catching set of joint statistics – 19 goals scored between them and only one conceded across six fixtures – and the match promises to be an enthralling contest.
It is no surprise, therefore, that both sides are relishing the prospect of the game, as Lead Coach Dmitri Halajko mentioned following his side’s victory over Reading last weekend.
He said: “We want to play in big games at big stadiums against big teams. That’s where development happens, which is what we’re here for. We go there with confidence, and we go there looking forward to a great game of football, which I’m sure it will be.”
Midfielder Alfie Lewis, who opened the scoring against the Royals last time out, was in agreement, adding: “We’re playing at Old Trafford, one of the best stadiums in the world. We’re all going to be well up for it and, the way we’re playing at the moment, I’d fancy us against anybody. Hopefully we can get another three points.”
Off the back of a disappointing Premier League 2 Division 1 season last time around, the momentum behind this West Ham team has been building ever since the arrival of Halajko as Lead Coach at the start of pre-season.
Since his appointment, the former Leicester City and Norwich City man has enjoyed a fine run of ten unbeaten fixtures in charge, winning seven of these.
Following a productive pre-season, which saw the young Hammers play six pre-season fixtures across three European countries – Croatia, Slovakia and Belgium – their league campaign opened with a flourish at the beginning of August with a 3-0 home victory against Fulham.
The Hammers’ high press, tireless work-rate and rapid movement of the ball were too much for the visitors, as Dan Kemp’s smart finish, Lewis’ side-footed conversion and Oladapo Afolayan’s tap-in put the emphasis on a dominant performance in which West Ham recorded 15 shots on target to their opponents' one.
Halajko spoke that day of his hopes his side would 'keep that feeling and remember it', but also challenged them to 'finish a higher number of the chances we create' – a clinical streak that would prove necessary during the following weekend’s testing trip up to Newcastle United.
In windswept conditions in the North East, West Ham started slowly and fell behind to an early goal, but recovered to win 2-1 through a Joe Powell and fortuitous own-goal by the Tyneside team’s central defender.
Although some of the U23s’ best football was not on display that day, the hard-fought victory was proof that the side had the resilience to 'grind out a result if we need to', Halajko said afterwards.
After a trip to Griffin Park the following Tuesday resulted in an entertaining 2-2 friendly match against a Brentford ‘B’ side – a game which also saw numerous players from across the Academy sides introduced to U23 football – West Ham played host to Reading last weekend.
Both sides went into the game with good domestic records, but it was the Hammers who, after a combative start to the match, took the lead early on, pouncing on a mistake by the visitors’ goalkeeper to take the lead through Lewis.
A penalty from Powell on the stroke of half-time and a well-taken one-on-one by Kemp after the break gave the Hammers an element of control in the match, but all three goals stemmed once again through their determination, perseverance, and quality on the ball when it mattered.
Following the trip to Manchester, the side’s next fixture will see them travel to Rodney Parade to take on Newport County AFC in the EFL Trophy on Wednesday 4 September.