Midweeks would often be filled with morale-boosting European jollies, while international breaks and cup weekends brought more prolonged escape from a relegation fight that would go close to the wire.
This time around, though, the mid-season’s fortnight off has been anything but nourishing. When the Hammers claimed a decent, if drab, 0-0 draw with bogey-side Brighton on January 2, it marked the end of a fruitful festive period that had delivered wins over Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United, thrusting David Moyes’s side firmly into contention for the European places and bringing news that the Scot will be offered a new deal.
In the 17 days since, however, the Hammers have lost a flurry of key players to injury and international duty, been knocked out of the FA Cup after 180 attritional minutes against Championship side Bristol City and had the chasm between Moyes’s first XI and the rest of his squad exposed in a manner that has bred doubt over their staying power as the campaign enters its second half.
In line with a broader trend across the division, transfer business in both directions has been slow to stationary, too.
The challenge, then, is to immediately restore what had been a growing sense of optimism at Sheffield United on Sunday.
The one positive to have emerged from the hiatus came at Old Trafford last weekend, where a 2-2 draw between Spurs and United — the teams sandwiching West Ham in sixth — has opened up this contest as an opportunity to consolidate.
Victory in their game in hand would see West Ham move to within three points of Spurs and what could prove a fifth Champions League spot, while also opening up a five-point cushion to the rest of the chasers, at least until Brighton visit Wolves on Monday.
Moyes on Friday gave an update on the fitness of Jarrod Bowen, with hope that the winger could return from an ankle problem ahead of schedule at Bramall Lane, while Pablo Fornals and Edson Alvarez could also be back after missing the midweek defeat.
Said Benrahma’s dismissal in that game means he joins an absentee list that already includes Lucas Paqueta, Michail Antonio, Nayef Aguerd and Mohammed Kudus, who returned from a hamstring injury to score twice in Ghana’s 2-2 draw with Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations on Thursday night.
Tuesday’s Cup exit means West Ham have been handed a de-facto second winter break. Win on Sunday, and they will go into it with spirits restored.