The gold standard for European nights at Upton Park was the European Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final second leg against Eintracht Frankfurt in April 1976. The floodlights, torrential rain, a sodden, muddy pitch, and an imperious display from Trevor Brooking. Most of those elements will be missing tonight but if the crowd can generate the equivalent energy that fizzed around the old Boleyn Ground on that day, then it could be enough to push the Hammers past Sevilla tonight. The Twelfth Man, your time has come!
It is depressing to have to drag up a match from 46 years ago to illustrate how special these nights can be. But it was a game that those lucky enough to experience will never forget. In an otherwise erratic and disappointing 1975/76 season, West Ham were top of the league after fifteen games in early November. They were still a respectable sixth place at Christmas, but by the end of the season had plummeted to eighteenth out of twenty-two. From topping the league, they lost seventeen of the final twenty-seven games, winning just four times.
Yet the European adventure told a different story. The quarter final had already seen a stirring comeback against Den Haag, overturning a 4-2 deficit from the first leg to win 3-1 in the second and go through on away goals. In the semi-final, the Hammers had lost 2-1 in Germany but again triumphed 3-1 in the return game to win 4-3 on aggregate. Following an exciting but goalless first-half, West Ham raced into 3 goal lead with two goals from Brooking and one from Keith Robson. True to form the Hammers then sat back, conceded a late goal and were forced to endure a customary heart stopping final few minutes. Nothing changes!
It’s a shame that the Sevilla game hasn’t come later in the competition but it promises to be cup football at its best. A delicately balanced tie with all the ingredients for a memorable night of action. Maybe people will still be reminiscing about tonight in the year 2068. And maybe, West Ham will have signed a new striker by then!
Most of the pre-match speculation will centre on the fitness of the three recently injured players – Michail Antonio, Aaron Cresswell and Jarrod Bowen. Reports from the usual unreliable journalists have proved inconclusive but according to the tea leaves, Bowen is the least likely to be available. With outside chances that the other two will be able to play some part in the matchday squad.
It would be a MASSIVE blow to lose both Antonio and Bowen. Despite Andriy Yarmolenko’s emotional involvement, and fine goal, on Sunday, I wouldn’t fancy him for the whole ninety minutes. He just doesn’t have the stamina and energy to match the undoubted technical ability. I really have no confidence that Nikola Vlasic might adequately share the striker burden with Yarmolenko, as some reports have suggested. With the only other option being the untried Sonny Perkins, I appeal to the footballing gods that Antonio is able to play at least a half.
Should Cresswell not make it then the obvious switch is Ben Johnson left back and Ryan Fredericks coming in on the right. I thought Fredericks did OK on Sunday but still don’t seem him as anywhere close to Johnson defensively.
The rest of the team picks itself. Kurt Zouma and Craig Dawson at the heart of defence, Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek in front of them, and an attacking midfield trio of Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals, and Said Benrahma. Fornals and Benrahma are two players who need to step up tonight. Both were generally poor at the weekend despite their respective goals and assist. They must do better at keeping the ball and make the right passes at the right time. Too often we are left painting ourselves into congested areas.
For Sevilla, Delaney is available after serving a one match ban but his place on the suspended list is taken by Ocampos. Martial and En-Nesryi will provide the attacking threat for a side who, by their own standards, have not been in the best of form lately. Although still second in La Liga, they have won just four of their twelve, all at home. In their last six outings they have scored five and conceded only four. They are not invincible but equally not easy to break down.
For West Ham to progress in the competition will require passion, intensity, and patience – from players and supporters alike. Sevilla may have a mean defence, but enough chances were created in Spain to have come away with a draw. We just need to make sure we take them this time and keep on plugging away. With 60,000 enthusiastic east-end voices roaring them on, it will lift the home side and intimidate the opposition. We cannot let Sevilla silence the crowd through time wasting, tactical head injuries and miscellaneous other unsporting chicanery. Stand loud and proud with the team until the final whistle.
Can we win this? Yes, we can. It is a night that can go down as one of the greatest in living memory. Get out there and enjoy it. I sense a repeat of that Eintracht Frankfurt score-line. West Ham to win 3-1 with a chance of meeting the Germans again on the road to the final. COYI!