Preparation for today’s Europa League Quarter Final second leg could hardly have gone any worse. Playing a full-strength side at Brentford on Sunday might have made sense at the time – in the hope of capitalising on slip-ups by Manchester United and Arsenal – but in retrospect giving key players the opportunity to rest would have been the sensible option. The Hammers wouldn’t have taken anything less from the game, and might have found themselves in a far better position to face Lyon.
The performance at Brentford was one of the poorest from a West Ham side for quite some time. We will discover later whether this was down to fatigue or was the result of player’s minds seduced by today’s showdown. There are fine margins at this level and concentration only has to slip a little to be exposed by an opponent as determined as Brentford.
The European adventure has provided a welcome added dimension to the season. Having had a taste, I’m sure most fans are eager for more next season. Qualification for the Europa League or Conference is still a possibility from league position but winning this competition would hit the jackpot of Champions League qualification. Easy to see why today’s game could serve as a distraction.
I was reasonably happy when West Ham were drawn against Lyon. After all, having just knocked out serial winners, Sevilla, what problems could a mid-ranking Ligue 1 side possibly pose? I did worry, though, whether the Hammers had peaked too soon in that Sevilla second leg. It felt like we were already in the final.
This tie sits finely poised after a referee assisted first leg stalemate at the London Stadium. Playing for half a game with ten men is never easy, so huge credit for a gutsy draw. But the implications of the farcical red card do not stop there. We must now play another whole game without the services of Aaron Cresswell. It’s not that Cresswell is a fantastic or irreplaceable player, it’s that he’s the only left back we have! A ludicrous state of affairs to find yourself in.
The other spanner in the works was the news that Kurt Zouma will miss the match, and potentially the rest of the season, with a twisted ankle. Wouldn’t Billy Bonds or Stuart Pearce just have had a squirt of Ralgex and carried on playing? Zouma is a commanding presence in the air but often looks awkward (almost clumsy) going in for tackles. I wonder whether he picks up more than his fair share of injuries because of that. No doubt he is one of our top players and his absence will be sorely missed.
I don’t see David Moyes making any radical changes to shape to compensate for the absences. It will be Issa Diop replacing Zouma in a straight swap, with Ben Johnson in as the least worst replacement for Cresswell. I consider Johnson to be the most accomplished of our full backs defensively but switching sides and playing on your weaker foot is not as easy as many suggest, particularly at the highest level. How well he adapts to the threat down the right may well be one of the pivotal battles of the night. There has also been speculation about Declan Rice dropping into a back three, but that would be crazy unless the plan is to play under siege for ninety minutes. In any case, the squad does not have the wing backs to deliver the attacking width required from the role.
Could there be change in the forward midfield positions? Manuel Lanzini looked seriously out-of-sorts on Sunday and maybe Pablo Fornals replaces him in the centre, with Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma out wide. Or could there be a surprise return for Mark Noble to stiffen the midfield alongside Rice and Tomas Soucek? Maybe that is a second half change!
My predicted line-up is: Areola, Coufal, Dawson, Diop, Johnson, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Fornals, Benrahma, Antonio
As with the first game I expect assorted dark arts and skulduggery from Lyon. The type of tactics that commentators euphemistically refer to as ‘using their experience‘, rather than calling it what it is, cheating. We must hope the Swiss referee is more attuned to such underhand behaviour and does not believe his role is to be part of the entertainment.
Lyon are reported to have picked up a number of injuries since the first leg, notably goalkeeper, Lopes and midfield creator, Paqueta. Goal threats remain from the winking Dembele, Toko Ekambi and Tete requiring new heights of excellence from the Dawson-Diop axis – a pairing that has failed to impress in the past.
Tonight’s winner will be set up for a cracker of a semi-final against either Barcelona or Eintracht Frankfurt. Although underdogs, West Ham can win this. On more than one occasion, the team have demonstrated the character, fight and determination needed to achieve it. It starts all-square with no requirement to win by more than one goal, as in the second leg with Sevilla. As someone famous once said, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.
We cannot change the players Moyes has available for selection. All we can do is accept whoever is picked, get fully behind the team, and spur them on to victory. I’m banking on the pace of power of Michail Antonio rattling the Lyon defence and our set pieces causing nightmares for the stand-in Lyon keeper. Dawson to nod in the winner! We still believe. COYI!