By Brian Jeeves
ALAN STEPHENSON was relieved that his former side saw off Swansea City last time out, easing their relegation fears.
The Hammers had lost five Premier League matches on the bounce going into last weekend’s clash with the Swans at the London Stadium. However, Stephenson, who made 108 appearances for the east London club between 1968 and 1972, was mindful that they had to make it back-to-back victories when they travel to the Stadium of Light to face rock-bottom Sunderland on Saturday.
Speaking to Yellow Sport ahead of the clash, Stephenson said: “It was a crucial win for Slaven Bilic and the team last week. It lifted a little of the gloom and doom around the London Stadium. They now need to secure their Premier League status as soon as possible. That way they can play with a little more freedom in the remaining games, perhaps giving their supporters some optimism for next season.
“It’s certainly another ‘must-win’ game for West Ham at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland are rooted to the bottom of the table and have not so much as scored a goal at home since mid-January. Bilic’s team must make it count this week as three points should make them all-but safe from the drop.”
Despite Sunderland’s struggles, Stephenson was wary of one particular Black Cats player who he believed would offer a genuine threat: “Jermaine Defoe has recently been linked with a return to the Hammers. He has scored more than half of Sunderland’s twenty-four goals this season and will be busting a gut to add to that tally this weekend.
“Remarkably, Defoe recently made a goalscoring return to the England side. He has made a big impact for every club he has represented and is an excellent example to younger footballers.
“The Hammers backline, particularly James Collins, were terrific against Swansea. They will have to be on their toes again this week to snub out Defoe’s threat. “
But Stephenson was also concerned with the Hammers ever growing injury list, adding: “Michail Antonio appears to be out for the remainder of the season, while there are question marks over Andy Carroll’s fitness. This is a big worry for Bilic, especially as his side need another four or five points to be safe from relegation.
“For me, Andre Ayew has to come alive and justify just why the Hammer paid a club record £20 million for him. This is a perfect opportunity for him to get amongst the goals and help his team away from trouble.
“West Ham still have eighteen points to play for. However, with the likes of Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur still to come they will face an anxious run-in if they fail to win against a poor Sunderland side."