Hammers of a certain age often rank the European Cup Winners Cup (ECWC) semi-final against Eintract Frankfurt among the most exciting nights ever under the Boleyn Ground floodlights. Trailing 2-1 from the first lag, the old ground was rocking with close to 40,000 expectant punters packed in. Heavy rain and a sodden pitch combined to create the ideal conditions for a Trevor Brooking masterclass, as West Ham scored three times to lead 4-2 on aggregate. There was still time for the Germans to pull a goal back, however, but the Hammers survived a customary jittery last few minutes to book their place in the final. Such occasions make for enduring memories and hopefully this season’s European adventure will linger long for a new generation of fans?
European football has changed a lot since those heady days though and this will be the Hammers first participation in a challenging Euro league format. There were opportunities in 2015/16 and 2016/17 but the chance was squandered both times by a complacency in the qualifying/ play-off games. Opponents may come from weaker, less illustrious leagues but it is wrong to assume they wont be wily or streetwise adversaries. Will David Moyes avoid repeating the mistakes of Slaven Bilic?
The draw was very kind one for us. A team from the third pot of seeds could not really have hoped for a friendlier grouping. Although the competition is a trip into the unknown for the club, progression through to the knock-out stage should not be beyond them. As things stand, winning the Europa League is a more realistic route to Champion’s League qualification than finishing in the Premier Leagues top four.
On paper, tonight’s game is the toughest group game that we will face. Dinamo Zagreb are seasoned European campaigners and regular Croatian champions – they currently sit top after seven games. Their participation in the group follows elimination in the Champion’s League play-off round to mystery Moldovan side, FC Sherrif.
I will await with interest to see the side David Moyes has selected for the match. It is the type of game where resting key players would be a risk. It is likely to be a raucous, if not hostile, environment. The dilemma for Moyes is in balancing resources, given how tired the team looked towards the end of the last two Premier League games and the prospect of facing Manchester United on Sunday.
I fully expect there to be a few changes from the team that started on Saturday with Alphonse Areola, Kurt Zouma, Issa Diop, Nikola Vlasic, Alex Kral and Manuel Lanzini all coming into contention. I would hope that Areola, Zouma and Vlasic are all certain starters and that Michail Antoinio continues up front now that he has the weekend off. Of all the leggy looking players, Tomas Soucek looks like he would most benefit from a rest, but I’m not sure how viable that is without weakening the team’s spine. Kral is a possible replacement and there has been talk of Mark Noble – but I would rather see him from the bench at this stage of his career.
My predicted line-up: Areola, Coufal, Diop, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek (or Kral), Bowen, Vlasic, Fornals, Antonio
European football and foreign opposition such as Dinamo Zagreb are unknown quantities as far as we Hammers fans are concerned. The Croatians famously knocked out Tottenham in the knock-out stage of last year’s competition and must fancy their chances. That might be a good thing as it would better suit our counter attacking style. Watching the unimaginative attempts to prise open or get behind an organised Southampton defence at the weekend demonstrated the squad’s shortcomings when in that respect. Perhaps Vlasic will fill that void.
With no form to guide me, my shot in the dark prediction is a battling 2-1 West Ham win to get the European campaign off to a flyer. Best of luck to all the Hammer’s fans heading to the Croatian sunshine. COYI!