The West Ham European adventure returns after a three month absence break and rolls into Andalusia tonight for the first leg of a make or break Europa League contest with Sevilla.
With the faint hopes of a top four finish receding by the week, the Europa League has arguably always been the Hammers best chance of glory. Sure, there are plenty of good teams left in the competition, but none are as strong as the top three that need to be overcome (or avoided) to win a domestic trophy. Who would bet against one of Manchester City, Liverpool or Chelsea lifting the FA Cup once again this year?
West Ham’s passage through the Europa League group stages was a relatively painless one. It was not the toughest of groups and qualification as winners meant sitting out the Play Off round, when Champions League flops receive their get out of gaol card. If there were hopes for an easy route to the final stages, these were spectacularly dashed when the Hammers were paired against Europa League specialists, Sevilla, in the Round of 16.
Despite a strong season in La Liga, where they are in second place, Sevilla experienced a disappointing Champions League campaign. A home win against Wolfsburg their only success, while defeats to Lille and Salzburg and three draws consigned them to a sorry third place finish. However, a 3-2 aggregate victory over Dinamo Zagreb (runners up in the Hammer’s group) in the Europa League Play Offs set up tonight’s clash. The Spaniards have famously won the competition six times, more than any other club, and along with compatriots, Barcelona, and RB Leipzig lead the bookmaker’s odds to be this year’s winners.
With the competition now entering the real knockout phase, the true spirit of cup competition, it will be interesting to see how David Moyes approaches a two-legged affair. There are sure to be elements of safety-first in Moyes plan against a side who neither score nor concede many goals. Sevilla generally boss possession and that may allow the Hammers to play to their strength of creating scoring opportunities on the break. What they must avoid is being as careless with their chances as they were in the last two games at Southampton and Liverpool.
Team selection news is good and bad. The good news being that Declan Rice will be fit enough to start; the bad that Jarrod Bowen is out, which is a big blow. I think we can assume David Moyes will be selecting his strongest possible side now we have reached this stage of the competition. This would mean Lukasz Fabianski replacing Alphonse Areola between the sticks, even though Areola had appeared in five of the six group games. There is little indication that Moyes sees the Frenchman as the long term ‘Number 1’ replacement – adding even further complication to the summer transfer business.
I understand Sevilla play a fluid 4-3-3 formation and Moyes might choose to match them up. The returning Rice joining Tomas Soucek and Manuel Lanzini in a midfield three, and either Nikola Vlasic or Said Benrahma linking up with Michail Antonio and Pablo Fornals up top – Fornals moving to the right and Vlasic/ Benrahma on the left.
Defensively it should be a familiar four of Ben Johnson, Kurt Zouma, Craig Dawson, and Aaron Cresswell. I have seen speculation of Ryan Fredericks coming in at right back, but this must have written by someone under the influence of hallucinogenics. It is unfortunate, but Fredericks has nothing to offer at this level other than a mythical pace that is rarely used to good effect. Who can see him as a better defender than Johnson?
Sevilla have a number of injury concerns and Danish midfielder Thomas Delaney is suspended having been sent off in Zagreb. They may feature Manchester United loanee, Anthony Martial, in attack.
The objective today will be to end the night with the tie still alive. A win would excellent, a draw acceptable, even a narrow defeat. But I wouldn’t fancy our chances at pulling back more than a one goal deficit at the London Stadium. The jeopardy of a finely balanced second leg cup tie under the floodlights is the stuff of legends, and long term memories.
I only know Sevilla by reputation. They will be tough opponents but, on our day, so are we. Sevilla have won just three of their last ten, so a positive result is not out of the question. Keeping the shape and taking our chances will be essential. Michail Antonio may well be a key player if he is on his game. His unconventional approach fully capable of rattling an unaccustomed defence. Let’s hope he is treated fairly by the officials. And remember, the away goals rule, originally introduced in 1965, no longer applies in this competition. COYI!