Slaven Bilic aims for top-half finish after West Ham move away from the relegation zone

Jon West
The Independent
Bilic received the 'dreaded vote of confidence' last month: Getty
Bilic received the 'dreaded vote of confidence' last month: Getty

Slaven Bilic, looking a broken man last week with his job on the line, is now buoyant enough to be targeting a top-10 finish. How the storyline can change in a short space of time at West Ham, this season's soap opera club.

Five successive defeats and almost as many votes of confidence from his employers had seemingly put Bilic on the brink but thankfully the fixture list threw him a lifeline in Swansea, a club whose players were even more paralysed by the fear of relegation than his own.

The only goal of the game, a belated yet timely first Premier League strike of the season from Cheikhou Kouyate, put the Hammers eight points clear of third-bottom Swansea, whose season, having initially been revived by the January arrival of Paul Clement, now appears to be flatlining.

West Ham's points tally of 36 may already be enough to secure safety, although given that they went down in 2003 with a record 'high' of 42, Bilic could not be blamed for being cautious.

But what is clear is the West Ham are now part of a cluster of clubs all jostling for 10th place.

"Still we can finish in the top half," the Croat said. "Watford are one point ahead of us. I want to finish as high as possible but let's get the job done very soon - 40 points.

"It would be good if 36 is enough but I know since my playing time that 40 points is a metaphor to secure the minimum goal. And let's do it as quick as possible to ease the pressure.

"And then hopefully we are going to be under pressure to try to climb up the table. We made a gap six games ago and then suddenly in no time, there is no gap. There is, but not the gap that we want.

"And now we don't want that situation to come again. We are not 'OK, we have done the job' - we haven't done the job, we are nowhere near doing the job. So at least let's do that kind of a job. Do everything we can like we put in today."

Kouyate's 44th-minute strike, following a one-two with Robert Snodgrass was the highlight of a game that was short on quality, especially from the visitors, who performed as if in a trance and managed just a single shot on target.

West Ham can all but confirm their top flight status by winning at Sunderland on Saturday and consign their brief brush with relegation to a long list of unexpected troubles in their London Stadium debut season, which began with civil strife over the facilities themselves and spiralled into clashes with rival supporters too, most notably Chelsea.

That what does not kill you makes you stronger, or so they say, and Bilic, who will have a hip operation at the end of the season, was certainly hoping so.

"This season could be one of the most valuable seasons growing for the club, as a team and for individuals because this experience makes you first of all motivated not to be in this situation again, and it makes you stronger," Bilic said. "But it is after you are through them of course."

West Ham scored just before the half-time whistle (Getty)
West Ham scored just before the half-time whistle (Getty)

Clement's spells as number two to Carlo Ancelotti make his CV an impressive one but he also has a false start as a manager at Derby on that list and knows that confidence levels at Swansea are so low they can't seem to do the one thing that has kept them up over the last few years, namely pass to each other.

Wednesday night's 3-1 home loss to Tottenham appears to have dealt a stinging blow, not least because they were actually winning going into the 88th minute.

Clement was hopeful a week on the training field would be enough to stop a run of five successive away defeats at Watford on Saturday.

"It’s the same for all the other teams but when you play three games in a week you get less preparation time," he said. "It’s about recovering and moving on quickly and for Watford there won’t be any excuses about preparation because we’ve got five days training.

"Every game everyone’s asking me is this a must win game for the last 12 games. It’s going to be the same next week, the same the week after and that brings its own pressures. We just have to focus on our performance."

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