So here we are, the first European quarter final action for West Ham since the heady days of March 1981. A time when one of my all-time favourite Hammers sides had been romping away with the second division with a League Cup final appointment with Liverpool to look forward, sandwiched between two ECWC games against Dinamo Tblisi.
In a TV commentary on Sunday’s victory over Everton (Jim Proudfoot, I think) it was said that the home leg against Tblisi was played behind closed doors. That was wrong. There were almost 35,000 of us packed into the Boleyn that night to witness one of the finest displays of mesmerising counter attacking football ever produced. Unfortunately, it came from the opposition whose masterclass of tricks, feints, and clever passing bamboozled a shell-shocked West Ham by four goals to one. If there can be such a thing as a favourite defeat, this was it. Just as long as there is no repeat this evening.
Today’s Ligue 1 opposition, Olympique Lyonnais, are a much better-known quantity than Tblisi were back in 1981. Highlights programmes, Youtube reels and the regular movement of players around the European leagues have made sure of that. Lyon are seasoned European campaigners, having featured in either the Champions League or Europa League in nine of the last ten seasons. They have competed in the Champions League group stage four times and even went as far as the semi-finals in 2019/20, having beaten Manchester City in the previous round.
Under new manager, Peter Bosz, this has been a less inspiring season. In Ligue 1 they sit in mid-table obscurity year (they are ninth) making the Europa League their only realistic route to Europe for the 2022/23 campaign.
Despite their travails in the league, Lyon have had an impressive Europa League so far. They won Group A at a canter, undefeated in six games against Rangers, Sparta Prague and Brondby. A commendable Round of 16 victory over runaway Portuguese league leaders, Porto, then set up the quarter final tie with the Hammers.
Familiar names in the Lyon side include Moussa Dembele, who had once looked an excellent prospect at Fulham, and Tottenham reject, Tanguy Ndombele. Others to watch out for are Brazilian playmaker, Pasqueta and the Cameroon striker, Ekambi. They have also been allowed by UEFA to add another Brazilian, Tete (on-loan from Shakhtar Donetsk), to their squad as part of the special transfer window arrangement for Ukraine and Russia based players.
Once again, there are few areas of debate when it comes to predicting the West Ham starting eleven. Manuel Lanzini will miss the game through suspension and Ben Johnson is doubtful with hamstring problems. Hopefully, Vladimir Coufal will return at right back, although for reasons best known to him, David Moyes rates Ryan Fredericks more highly than most supporters do. Otherwise, the only other change to the side that started in the competent win over Everton will be Alphone Areola replacing Lukasz Fabianski between the sticks: Areola, Coufal, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Fornals, Benrahma, Antonio.
Playing the first leg at home never has quite the same sense of jeopardy or urgency about it – there is always a second chance. The London Stadium crowd put in a cracking performance as twelfth man against Sevilla and a repeat of that would surely intimidate the visitors.
The Lyon coach has a reputation for preparing teams that press hard and play attacking football, sometimes recklessly. If the press can be beaten, then it would play nicely to West Ham’s counter-attacking strengths. The Hammers also have a distinct height advantage over Lyon, so set-pieces may also be a deciding factor. While, Lyon have not been prolific in front of goal they do possess several players with impressive goalscoring records. The determination and concentration of Craig Dawson and Kurt Zouma will be significant at both ends.
A slight worry for West Ham is Declan Rice’s yellow card situation. If I understand the UEFA rules correctly, a card today will result in suspension for the second leg although the slate will be wiped clean before the semi-finals.
It would be great if the tie could effectively be put to bed in the first leg with an emphatic victory. But big wins are a rarity for a team that prefers to protect what they have rather than pressing home the advantage. I can see Lyon finding it difficult to handle Michail Antonio and that will give us the edge required for victory. But only by a margin that will have us sweating again this time next week. COYI!