European football makes its long-awaited return to the east-end tonight as West Ham look to build on their successful start in Zagreb and stay on course for the knockout stages of the Europa League.
Group stage cup football is a new experience for the Hammers and although it may lack the jeopardy of sudden death elimination, it does provide a guarantee of at least three home fixtures for fans to enjoy. It will be interesting to see how that impacts the attendance – I would expect a crowd somewhere north of 40,000 for today’s visit of Rapid Vienna.
Finishing top of Group H and avoiding the Preliminary knockout round, when third placed teams from the Champion’s League groups drop into the competition, would be a huge bonus. Win the three home games and that would be a big step through to the last sixteen.
The progress of Premier League clubs in the Champion’s League has not bothered me much in recent years but I’m now hoping they all qualify from their groups. I will happily trade the schadenfreude of their elimination for not having to face home opposition in the latter stages.
The game against Rapid Vienna will be West Ham’s first competitive encounter with Austrian opposition. Rapid are the most successful club ever in Austrian football having won the league thirty-two times, and the cup fourteen times. They twice reached the final of the European Cup Winners Cup but lost on both occasions.
Having finished second in the Austrian Bundesliga last season they have struggled for results in a hectic start to the new season. Tonight, will be their twenty-first competitive fixture – against West Ham’s ninth. Rapid were eliminated from Champion’s League qualifying by Sparta Prague but then went on to beat teams from Cyprus and Ukraine in reaching the Europa League group stage, where they lost their opening game at home to Genk. They have also struggled for domestic league form and currently sit eleventh placed out of twelve teams.
David Moyes will want to get the home campaign off to a storming start in front of an expectant crowd. It needs the selection of a strong side although there could well be starts for squad players such as Alphonse Areola, Ben Johnson, Issa Diop, Craig Dawson, Alex Kral and Manuel Lanzini. Perhaps the biggest question is whether the club’s lone striker Michail Antonio is given a start or is kept as emergency standby on the bench.
Possible line-up: Areola, Johnson, Zouma, Diop, Cresswell, Rice, Kral, Vlasic, Lanzini, Benrahma, Bowen
The Europa League promises to be a great experience for the club and its supporters. It may also be a more realistic route to Champion’s League qualification than a top four Premier League finish at this point in time – although, there is, of course, still a long way to go. A win today will be another step for the Hammers in staking their claim at the top of the group. Accepting that no game is ever easy – and nothing can be taken for granted – I still forecast a clear West Ham victory here tonight – by two or three goals. COYI!