Setting The Scene: Away to Astra

The tension builds as West Ham seek to build a winning first-leg foundation.

Europa League AstraWest Ham have travelled to Romania for tonight’s Europa League qualifying play-off first leg tie against the Black Devils of FC Astra Giurgui (Kick Off 19:15 BST). It was Astra who ended the Hammer’s European dream last season with a 4-3 aggregate win in our only previous encounter with the current Romanian champions. Previous meetings with Romanian opposition in Europe competition (where we have yet to record an away victory) saw UEFA Cup elimination to Steaua Bucharest in 1999 and victory against Poli Timisoara in the 1980/81 Cup Winner’s Cup. Coincidentally, Astra recorded their first league win of the season last weekend against bottom side Poli Timisoara.

Until 2012 Astra Giurgiu were known as Astra Ploiesta until the club was moved 130km to the south by the current owner despite long running protests from Barry Hearn. This would be the equivalent of Reading moving to Southend and a far greater upheaval than our recent relocation from Upton Park to Stratford. The move heralded Astra’s first ever Romanian championship victory.

“We have a big job to do against the Romanian champions. I know there are many players from last year and a lot of international players. For me they played a good game against Copenhagen at home and I know how good the teams from Romania can be.”

– Super Slav

Despite the game sandwiched between our tame defeat at Chelsea and the opening home fixture with Bournemouth it is expected that the Hammers will field a strong side in order to secure Europa League group stage qualification. It seems that Ayew is now out for an extended period and joins Lanzini, Cresswell and Sakho on the recuperation ward. Under The Hammers sources (i.e. we read it on the internet) suggest that Payet and Nordvelt have not travelled with the squad but that new boy Callieri managed to grab a spare seat on the plane. Arthur Masuaku is not yet eligible but no news, as yet, on the whereabouts of Sofiane Feghouli.

How we line up will be awaited with interest particularly the thorny full-back situation with Byram being our only available specialist in that position. I searched to Google to see if there was any possible academy replacement but all I got was “Page Not Found” (or at least out on loan along with Hendrie). Involvement from at least one of the Reeces tonight would be very welcome along with a role for the unfortunate Antonio as a midfield attacking threat.

“The decisions were scandalous and disgraceful. The errors of Artur Dias did not happen due to dishonesty. He needs to leave refereeing or ask to be excused from our games.”

– Porto President Pinto da Costa on tonight’s referee.

The man in the middle tonight is Artur Dias of Portugal who was once described by Porto’s President as scandalous and disgraceful following his performance in a Benfica – Porto derby game. We managed to avoid a repeat of last year’s red-card-fest in the previous round so fingers crossed that discipline is maintained.

My prediction for what it is worth is that our Romanian duck will endure with a scoreless or low scoring draw.