West Ham’s Champions League challenge could rest on Kurt Zouma return as defence looks frazzled

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Kurt Zouma has excelled since joining West Ham from London rivals Chelsea  (Getty Images)
Kurt Zouma has excelled since joining West Ham from London rivals Chelsea (Getty Images)

West Ham’s hopes of Champions League qualification were dented as the strain of playing three games in eight days took its toll.

David Moyes’s side were visibly off the pace against Leeds. Their defence was pulled from pillar to post on a day when Kurt Zouma was sorely missed, and their chances of maintaining a top-four challenge could rest on his return following a hamstring injury and a bout of Covid.

The French centre-half has been outstanding since his £29.8million move from Chelsea last summer and is needed to shore up a backline that was stunned by a hat-trick from Jack Harrison yesterday.

Zouma is back in training and targeting a return against Manchester United on Saturday, but Moyes says the 27-year-old is still recovering from the impact of Covid.

Craig Dawson and Issa Diop formed a solid partnership for a long period last season as West Ham finished sixth, but they have been less convincing together of late and were both guilty of errors against Leeds.

The Hammers twice fought back to equalise through Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals either side of half-time, but while the former missed a golden chance to snatch a point at the death, defensive lapses let Leeds in on too many occasions.

“We found it difficult to get prepared quickly,” said Hammers boss Moyes, whose side remain two points clear of fifth-placed Arsenal. “We made mistakes, no one else’s fault, but there were other reasons for it as well.”

Moyes hit out at the Premier League for making West Ham play their rearranged fixture against Norwich last Wednesday, while Leeds had a free week following the busy festive schedule despite having two postponed games to play themselves.

Dawson and Diop looked frazzled by the end yesterday as West Ham, also missing Tomas Soucek after he tested positive for Covid, struggled to cope with Marcelo Bielsa’s all-action side.

The return of Zouma would be a timely boost to their Champions League push.

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