A return to Europa League action for West Ham tonight as they face Racing Gent in their third round of six Group H games. With two wins already in the bag (against a Dinamo and a Rapid) another victory would effectively ensure European involvement extending Christmas. Even if a further win or two may be required to secure the all-important top spot.
If it wasn’t for the success of their football club, I doubt many of us would have ever heard of Genk. How educational following football can be! They have become one of the dominant clubs in Belgian football in recent years, winning four championship titles and lifting the cup five times. They have been regular participants in European competition since the late 1990s and have qualified for the Champions League group stage on three occasions, most recently in 2019/20.
In 2020/21, Genk finished fourth in the regular season but had climbed their way up to second place by the end of the convoluted playoff round. Their reward was entry into the third qualifying round of the Champions League, where they were beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk – and dropped down into the Europa League draw.
The game against Genk will be the third time West Ham have faced Belgian opposition have faced in European competition. The Hammers very first European tie in the 1964/65 ECWC campaign was against Gent (then known by their French name, La Gantoise), which they won 2-1 on aggregate. The second encounter though led to a less successful outcome when Anderlecht defeated West Ham 4-2 in the final of the same competition at the Heysel Stadium in May 1975.
West Ham go into the game in good spirits following an excellent showing at Goodison Park on Sunday. But they will also have one eye on the visit of the Harry Kane eleven at the weekend. As with previous rounds, resources will need to be managed carefully to navigate tonight’s tie while keeping as many of the regulars as possible fit and fresh for Sunday’s blockbuster.
The Hammers squad has a more robust look to it these days. There is greater depth and when we have seen players coming in, they have looked very well drilled as to what the system demands of them. However, with probable absences due to injury and infections, the potential for rotation may not be as great as before.
The main pressure points are well known: striker and left back. West Ham are not the same team when missing the physical strength of Michail Antonio as the arrowhead in attack. It is not just his goals that are important – his presence is pivotal to much of the transition from defence to attack. If he is not risked tonight the attacking threat will be much diminished without an obvious replacement.
Aaron Cresswell has played every match this season apart from the League Cup tie at Old Trafford. The squad has no specialist left back replacement to give him a break. While Ben Johnson can move across as emergency cover, subject to the fitness of Vladimir Coufal and Ryan Fredericks, it is not his best position. Arthur Masuaku is a possibility as left wing back – I doubt that David Moyes will elect to change formation for this one – but gets too distracted when defending.
Elsewhere, there will be likely Europa recalls for Alphonse Areola, Craig Dawson, Issa Diop, Manuel Lanzini and Nikola Vlasic. Plus, Mark Noble may replace Tomas Soucek in central midfield if his injury situation allows.
Genk have lost each of their last three games and have slipped to midtable in the Belgian League. While they won their Europa League opener in Vienna, they subsequently lost heavily at home to Zagreb.
One player likely to standout for Genk is 6ft 7in Nigerian striker, Paul Onuachu, one of the many strikers linked to the Hammers during the transfer window. Will be interested to see how he does. They also feature an Englishman in Ike Ugbo, a former Chelsea youth teammate of Declan Rice who moved to Belgium in search of regular football in the summer..
Genk appear to get through almost as many managers as Watford. The current incumbent is John van den Brom from the Netherlands who joined in November 2020. The managerial alumni includes Alex McLeish (for one disappointing season in 2014/5) who was once courted for (but turned down) the West Ham hotseat following the departure of Harry Redknapp.
On paper, this looks a relatively straightforward assignment for West Ham. But no game can be taken lightly – or taken for granted. Genk typically score in most of their games, even when they lose, and concentration will be required to keep that Europa league clean sheet intact. It will be an important game to win and victory here, and in the return leg in a fortnight’s time, should be enough seal top spot in the group.
Another 2-0 home win for the Hammers. COYI!