Sliding Tackles – What If West Ham Had Beaten Eintracht Frankfurt?

The European Conference League group stages splutter to and end for West Ham with a dead rubber tie in Bucharest. Can they raise the enthusiasm to make it six wins out of six?

Seeing Eintracht Frankfurt make it through to the last sixteen of the Champions League made me wonder what might have happened in a parallel reality had things worked out differently in last seasons Europa League semi-final. What if Aaron Cresswell hadn’t had a rush of blood to the head in the 19th minute, didn’t receive a foolish red card, and West Ham had gone on to overturn the one goal first-leg deficit? A footballing Sliding Doors moment, or Sliding Tackles, in this case.

Granted it would still have required the Hammers also to overcome Glasgow Rangers in the final – no foregone conclusion if pre-season friendlies were anything to go by – but how might our boys team have fared in the glare of Champions League floodlights? Could they have emulated the admirable success of Frankfurt or would it have been the abject failure of Rangers?

Frankfurt probably got lucky in being drawn into one of the weaker or, at least, more balanced of groups – but that should not detract from their fine achievement. Their squad is not radically different to the one we met last May and net summer spending was a modest €6 million. West Ham target, Filip Kostic departed for Juventus while the largest outlay was the permanent signing of loanee Jens Petter Hauge (the player Cresswell had fouled) who was promptly loaned out to Gent in Belgium. Kostic’s replacement was another reported Hammer’s target, Luca Pellegrini, signed on a season long loan from Juventus. In addition to their impressive Champions League exploits, Frankfurt also currently sit a creditable fifth in the Bundesliga.

So what if West Ham had qualified for the Champions League? Would it have been easier to recruit new players in the summer, get the first choices in early and have a reasonably settled side before the season started? Or would the usual haggling and dithering have been just the same?

Despite never being wholly convincing, the Hammers Europa Conference campaign has mostly been a walk in the park against the also-rans of the Denmark, Romania, and Belgium leagues. How might they have fared in group games against the likes of Marseille or Sporting Lisbon? Or against one of the qualifiers from either Italy or Germany – as it would not have been possible to be drawn against Tottenham? Would we have seen the same negative away day tactics that have become the norm in domestic matches against ‘bigger’ clubs?  

Many unknowns but my feeling is that dropping down to the Europa League would have been the most likely outcome. We can never know and the best we can now hope for is another shot at the Europa League next year. It remains the easiest route to the holy grail of Champions League participation for a club like ours.

I’m sure we were all shocked when the cunning David Moyes plan of ‘not trying to score until going a goal down’ failed once again to pay dividends at Old Trafford. Do you think he has spotted a pattern yet? We will have to wait until Boxing Day when his team visit Arsenal to see how Plan B is coming along.

Back in the present reality, there is a meaningless final Conference League group game tonight as West Ham travel to play FCSB, the club formerly known as Steaua Bucharest. Apparently, a West Ham win would be the first time any club has won all six games in this particular competition’s group stages. Even the most desperate manager would be embarrassed to put that on his CV!  

By all accounts it will be a mix of second string and youth players representing the Hammers tonight. According to one unverified source, the only first-team squad members travelling to Romania were Areola, Randolph, Ogbonna, Coufal, Ashby, Johnson, Aguerd, Downes, Coventry, Fornals and Lanzini. So that could very well mean Darren Randolph doing a Les Sealey turn up front!

Still no sign of Maxwell Cornet who was last seen wandering the labyrinth of corridors in the West Ham treatment facility – searching for the way out. You can check out, but you can never leave!

I should be looking forward to seeing a few youngsters getting a run out in tonight’s game – unleashed, I think, is the technical term. Hopefully it will be for more than three minutes of added time, although with the U21s rock bottom of the Premier League 2 perhaps we shouldn’t be getting too excited. But it would be a great experience for the lads involved.

Very difficult to generate any real enthusiasm for the game with all jeopardy removed, but hoping it’s an enjoyable trip for any travelling fans. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

On Handling The Cherries And Preparing For A Danish: West Ham Take On Silkeborg

West Ham set to seal Group B champions spot as they face Silkelborg at the London Stadium. The match may feature the long awaited debut for long-term absentee Nayef Aguerd.

I spent the weekend watching far too many Premier League games on TV than was strictly necessary. There must be more productive things to do when West Ham have been relegated to the Monday night slot. The experience left me with three random observations.

First, what is the point of the Oracle Cloud Win Probability that pops every twenty minutes or so? And are the commentators contractually obliged to mention it’s findings? Manchester City are leading 2-0 and are more likely to win than their opponents. Really, who knew? How is such an insight meant to inform or entertain?

Second, can TV producers please step back from their irritating and increasing tendency to look for arty angles to shoot the action from? As if they are filming a re-make of Escape To Victory. Doesn’t the TV viewer want an equivalent view to what would be experienced in the stadium, not a close up of Jack Grealish’s boots?

Third, and most importantly, if you have no particular skin in the game (i.e. West Ham are not involved) the entertainment value of games is not that great – for what is said to be the best league in the world. There may be momentary flashes of sublime skill, plus the occasional intriguing tactical battle, but take out the partisanship and many games tend towards the dreary for long periods. At least they did this weekend. Perhaps that is why we need the VAR talking points. To stop us nodding off or getting distracted by an animated dancing donkey video on TikTok.

The West Ham – Bournemouth game is unlikely to feature on anyone’s future list of best ever games. The various VAR debates will live far longer in the memory than any of the action on the pitch, and that seems true of so many games these days. No surprise that the West Ham and Bournemouth camps were not in full agreement on the decisions of Messrs Coote and Dean. Post match several ex-referees have given their opinion that according to the letter of the laws (or their current interpretation), both decisions were the correct ones. It is clear, though, that the offside and handball laws in particular need a thorough overhaul. Not to make them easier for VAR to review but to make them more consistent with their original sporting intentions.

Player ratings are another area where strong disagreements arise. Most are probably made up on the hoof without much thought and based on overall impressions – and influenced by individual prejudices. I doubt many are completely objective. Many years ago I think it was only the Sunday People that gave player ratings but in the modern era where it is possible to rate anything and everything (bus stops, flyovers, toilets and so on) they have become ubiquitous. Below is a selection from Monday night’s game.

Football London followed the path of least resistance and gave every West Ham player a 7, while anointing Kurt Zouma as their first among equals STAR MAN (come on Football London couldn’t that have been an 8?). iNews and the Evening Standard were all at 6’s and 7’s aside from the bold iNews decision to award Jarrod Bowen an 8; and the Standard in giving Said Benrahma, 8 and Gianluca Scamacca a sorry 5. Claret & Hugh mostly echoed the Standard ratings but with an additional 8 for Declan Rice. The award for the most creative ratings goes to West Ham Zone whose distribution included Bowen (3), Ben Johnson (4), 8’s for Rice, Benrahma and Thilo Kehrer, and a 9 for Zouma.

In comparison, the stats website, Whoscored, takes an algorithmic approach to its ratings based on a myriad of measurable player actions that are recorded during the course of the game. From that data, Whoscored rated Zouma, Aaron Cresswell, Benrahma, and Tomas Soucek as the Hammer’s top performers (all above 7.5) while Bowen lagged behind as worst of the bunch (excluding late substitutions).

Reading various message boards after the game, I saw plenty of criticism of Soucek, but much of that might be muscle memory from prior performances. I thought he was played more to his strengths against Bournemouth which, as we know, are headed clearances and ghosting in late for goalscoring opportunities. It’s unfortunate that elsewhere on the pitch the messages from his brain take far too long to reach his feet. The emergence of Flynn Downes now presents a conundrum for Moyes as a threesome with Rice, Soucek, and Flynn Downes, leaves one a defensive midfield gooseberry.

It’s a return to Europa Conference League action tonight as West Ham welcome Danish Super Liga club, Silkeborg to the London Stadium. The Hammers are already assured of progressing to the next phase of the competition while Silkeborg are the only club able to overhaul them as group champions. Although it would take a run of freak results to that. To secure top spot West Ham need either a win, a draw or to come out on top in the head-to-head aggregate score against the visitors. A 1-0 or 2-1 defeat would be good enough.

Silkeborg currently sit fourth in their domestic league, two places behind Viborg who the Hammers earlier beat in Conference League qualifying.  They are leading scorers in their league but also have one of the leakiest defences. At the weekend they went down 3-2 away to Horsens after going down to ten men just after the break.

In the reverse fixture between the two clubs, the Hammers won 3-2, recovering from an early home goal, racing to a 3-1 lead and then surviving a late scare after Silkeborg pulled one back. The Danes followed this up with two impressive 5-0 thrashings of FCSB to move into second place. Their final group match will be at home to Anderlecht next week.

David Moyes will likely ring a host of changes in the starting eleven, leaving his bigger guns on the bench in case of accident. Students of the training session videos sent out by the club are suggesting the involvement of Conor Coventry and Pierre-Emmanuel Ekwah in addition to the normal midweek shadow squad. There may even be a welcome West Ham debut for long term absentee Nayef Aguerd at some point during proceedings.    

I’m fully expecting the Hammers to do just enough to get the job done, but not expecting any fireworks. Possibly another 3-2 win. COYI!

Davey’s On A Roll Again – Hammers Looking For Six Wins From Last Seven In Return Anderlecht Showdown

An improved run of results without ever convincing has raised the mood at West Ham. Tonight they get a chance to seal the fate of Group B.

It never ceases to amaze me how much of a pigs-ear the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) have made of implementing VAR. That’s assuming the intention was to eliminate clear and obvious errors, rather than to generate ‘talking points’ for the vast and growing ranks of the punditocracy.

The beauty of football is its simplicity. What should have been the intelligent use of technology to quickly check against major refereeing bloopers, has instead created a whole new set of interpretations that were never a problem in the first place. It has introduced spurious levels of accuracy, offences that are treated differently depending where on the pitch they occured, and an imaginary concept of phases of play. One step forward and several steps backwards is the way I see it. Like permitting the use of self-driving cars on the roads and then insisting the man walking in front with a red flag must be re-introduced at the same time.

Neither of the goals by Gianluca Scamacca or Michail Antonio would have raised an eyebrow in pre VAR days. Balls brushing against the hand as it bounces, or as the result of a challenge is surely not in the spirit of a handball offence. The Scamacca VAR review was the perfect representation of all that is wrong with its implementation. How can it take 2 or 3 minutes to identify whether a clear and obvious error has beem amde? What on earth were they doing? Checking offside, handball, his credit rating and whether he had paid his TV licence? Still, it was smart work by Antonio to play a one-two off the keeper for his goal in order to start a new phase of play – just in case!

And as for the penalty, it was pure stupidity on the part of the Fulham player. His only intention was to block Craig Dawson’s path regardless of where and in which direction the ball was travelling. A clear infringement, and especially so as he had been warned at least twice immediately beforehand. It was a no-brainer penalty decision (apart from in Marco Silva’s head) and every commentary, every minute by minute report was unanimous in its award.

Apart from yet another worryingly slow start, during which Fulham scored and hit the bar, West Ham were by far the more threatening side on Sunday. But we still need a more adventurous attitude if the evolving talents and understanding of Scamacca and Lucas Paqueta are to be utilised to their full extent. While David Moyes will be thrilled that the Hammers have won five of the last six (in all competitions) he must be aware that they have yet to be fully convincing in any game.

Tonight, West Ham have a first opportunity to effectively seal qualification from Group B as champions. A fourth win from four against the second-best team in the group should build an unassailable lead. But it is still a game that needs to be won. Last weeks encounter was a close fought affair despite the West Ham goal coming under next to no pressure until the late Silva header, and the marvelous Areola save.

Just like West Ham, Anderlecht came from a goal down to win 3-1 in the league at the weekend, moving them up to ninth in the Belgian league. It will be interesting to what approach they take to today’s game, where avoiding defeat may best suit their long term qualification interests. If so, the Hammers may have a job on their hands to break them down and maintain their 100% record.

We can expect Moyes to start with a very similar lineup to that used in the previous Anderlecht game, subject to availability. There is some doubt over Antonio, who has been suffering with a cold, and questions as to whether Jarrod Bowen needs to take a rest. Antonio’s absence would necessitate another start for Scamacca, and another opportunity to extend his impressive Europa scoring record. But there is no obvious replacement for Bowen unless Maxwell Cornet is fit to play. The other option being the ever-willing Pablo Fornals moving across to the right hand side – demonstrating that he is too slow to catch Antonio’s cold on either flank.

Although I don’t have any ideological dislike of playing with a back three, our full-backs aren’t really up to playing the advanced wing-back role. Vladimir Coufal and Aaron Cresswell lack the pace and Emerson is too fond of cutting inside to be effective in providing the team’s width. It certainly isn’t good enough against Premier League opposition but may be adequate enough tonight.

Putting the group to bed with two games to spare would be a huge benefit given the busy match schedule in the coming weeks. I’m hoping that we plan to go all out for the win – or as all out as the manager’s caution allows. A 2-0 West Ham win for me. COYI!

Belgian Waffle: West Ham’s Revenge Visit To Anderlecht

If revenge is a dish best served cold, then waiting forty-six years to take it should bring a deep frozen sense of satisfaction. But can the Hammers do the business in Brussels?

In a bad week for conferences, West Ham renew their Europa Conference campaign with an away trip to Belgian side, Anderlecht. Should the Hammers prevail and maintain their perfect start in Group B it would create clear daylight between themselves and the rest of the pack. Getting the group sewn up early would be a huge bonus given poor domestic form and the prospect of ten games in the next thirty-seven days.

Older Hammers will remember well the only previous encounter between West Ham and Anderlecht. The 1976 European Cup-Winners’ Cup (ECWC) Final, played at the infamous Heysel stadium – a 10 km hike across Brussels from tonight’s venue.

Anderlecht were part of the European elite back in the 70’s and 80’s. The days before mega TV deals and big money when success was shared around more evenly, allowing the Belgians to win two ECWC Finals, one UEFA Cup and two UEFA Super Cups – as well as appearing as losing finalists four times.

In the 1976 Final, the Anderlecht line-up featured Dutch masters Rob Rensenbrink and Arie Haan plus future Hammer, Francois Van der Elst. They were firm favourites to win the game against an out of form West Ham who relied heavily on the legendary services of Trevor Brooking and Billy Bonds. If you think the Hammer’s current form is bad now, in 1976 it was abysmal. In all the league games played between January and May the record was: played nineteen, lost twelve, drawn six and won one (against QPR). A run that saw the team fall from top spot in November to finally finish eighteenth (out of twenty-two).

Even so the Hammers put in a decent shift on the night. An early lead through Pat Holland was cancelled out just before half time before following a poor Frank Lampard back pass. Van der Elst put Anderlecht ahead just after the break, but the Hammers clawed their way back into contention when Keith Robson headed home from Brooking’s cross twenty minutes from time. With the tie nicely poised, the game turned when Holland was adjudged to have brought down Rensenbrink in the penalty area. Where was VAR when you needed it? Rensenbrink netted from the spot and Van der Elst scored his second late on, to make it 4-2, as the Hammers pushed forward for an equaliser.

Anderlecht remain Belgium’s most successful club side of all time although their pre-eminence has been usurped by Club Brugge in recent years. Although the Purple and White have never finished outside the Belgian league’s top six, they are floundering this term in a lowly tenth position. What we wouldn’t give for tenth!

David Moyes is likely to make several changes for tonight’s fixture following a welcome first home win, with some signs of improvement, at the weekend. It will be the usual switch of keeper and possibly the return of Vladimir Coufal and Angelo Ogbonna in defence. Ideally there should be further chances for Flynn Downes and Said Benrahma in midfield and possibly a recall for Manuel Lanzini. Surely, Gianluca Scamacca must be allowed to continue his splendid Euro scoring form and maybe, just maybe, with Jarrod Bowen and Maxell Cornet nursing injuries, we might even get to see Scamacca and Michail Antonio on the pitch at the same time. It has been reported that several youth team players have been added to the squad in Brussels but past evidence suggests that carrying the bags is the only action they will see.

Most recognisable names in the Anderlecht line-up are ex-Tottenham warhorse, Jan Vertonghen and expensive Wolverhampton striking flop, Fabio Silva – a player so ineffective he couldn’t get a game in a team with no strikers.

The previous two group games have seen (what has become) the trademark slow start from Moyes’ team, having fallen behind against both FCSB and Silkeborg. A repeat tonight would be best avoided while another three-goal haul (making it five in a row in the competition) would be more than welcome. West Ham to win 3-1.  

For Better Or For Wurst: West Ham Prepare To Batter Frankfurters

Your task should you wish to accept it, is to win by two clear goals. It’s a tough assignment but no mission impossible as the Hammers head to Frankfurt

All the West Ham eggs are now firmly in a single basket labelled Europa League semi-final second leg. Nine months of competition season distilled into ninety minutes (plus) in which the Hammers must turn the tables and emerge victorious if they are to keep dreams of glory and silverware alive.

Defeat in the first leg was disappointing. As much for the deflation and failure to live up to events of 46 years ago as the outcome of the match itself. But all was not lost and the tie remains alive. It is not ideal to start the game a goal behind, but it makes winning a difficult task, not a monumental one.  A draw at the London Stadium would still have required victory tonight, the only difference being how the two teams react to the circumstances they find themselves in. Will Eintracht, no longer the underdogs, risk sitting back on their lead – do they stick or do they twist? The challenge for West Ham is clear – play with intensity, avoid conceding sloppy goals and find the guile to get behind and beyond the host’s defence?

Both managers fielded weakened sides in league matches at the weekend. Eintracht dropping into the bottom half of the Bundesliga following defeat to third placed Leverkusen, West Ham losing out in their London Derby against Arsenal to effectively end outstanding hopes of consecutive top six finishes. I doubt form will count for much tonight, though. It’s a one-off game that will test character and resilience as much as it will ability.

If there was a takeaway from the first leg it was that Eintracht performed technically and tactically better than West Ham. The Hammers either lacked quality in the final third (a recurring theme) or their threat was snuffed out by superior German tactics. The match statistics, however, painted an interesting picture that provides at least a straw of encouragement for the return. West Ham had more shots, a greater share of possession, won more corners, had a better pass success rate, made more successful dribbles, and won more aerial duels than their opponents. And of course, struck the woodwork three times. But the only stat that wins matches are goals scored. To win we must outscore the opposition. Certainly not impossible.

It should be a fully fit squad for David Moyes to select from with the exception of extended absentee, Angelo Ogbonna. The only uncertainties are probably Ben Johnson or Vladimir Coufal at right back, and which two of Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals or Said Benrahma feature alongside Jarrod Bowen in the attacking midfield positions. I’m fairly confident that Lanzini will start which then boils selection down to a preference for Fornals energetic defensive cover or a hoped-for moment of magic from Benrahma. The introduction of Benrahma certainly livened things up in the first leg but his starts are routinely characterised by bright starts fizzling out once the tricks and flicks fail to come off. But we need invention tonight, so my predicted starting eleven would be: Areola, Johnson, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Bowen, Lanzini, Benrahma, Antonio.

Eintracht Frankfurt welcome back two players (Ndicka and Jakic) suspended from the first leg but may stick with side that steered them to victory in London.

The game might prove to be a fascinating tactical battle. Both teams preferring to play on the break but neither having demonstrated the soundest defensive conviction in recent matches. To succeed West Ham must be clinical on the break and make better use of the set pieces that come their way. At the back, the greatest worry is the weakness and lack of pace down our left-hand side. It is going to be tense from start to finish.

It is the second leg of European encounters that usually deliver the most memorable games. Forget group matches, this is where the excitement is, unless the first leg has made it a foregone conclusion. We were already treated to thrills and superb performances in previous rounds against Sevilla and Lyon. And with all to play for tonight, we must believe the team can deliver once again.  Big performances will be needed from the likes of Zouma, Dawson, Rice, Bowen and Antonio

Personally, I am mentally prepared for extra-time and even the spectre of penalties tonight, although hopefully it won’t come to a shoot-out lottery. With only limited resources available from the bench, and a manager reluctant to use them in any case, a victory in normal time would be nice. In a kind of reverse symmetry to 1976, a 3-1 away win would be absolutely wunderbar. COYI!  

Can West Ham United beat Eintracht Frankfurt once again in a repeat European Semi-Final of one of the great games in their history. It was 4-3 on aggregate over the two legs in 1976. Will this be a similar classic?

West Ham’s forays into European competitions have come about following winning the FA Cup in 1964, 1975 and 1980, the European Cup Winners Cup in 1965, and a fifth-place finish in the Premiership (as it was then called) in 1998-99. The now defunct European Cup Winners Cup was a fantastic competition for us in the seasons following those cup wins, winning the trophy in 1965, being the losing semi-finalists in 1966 (qualifying as the winners in the previous season), being losing finalists in 1976, and losing quarter finalists in 1981 when we were a second-tier side. We even won the Inter-Toto Cup in 1999 following our fifth-place finish in the 1998-99 Premiership season which gave us qualification into the UEFA Cup in 1999-2000 where we were eliminated in the second round by Steaua Bucharest of Romania. The Europa League has been great this season too. We do have a fantastic record in Europe – it’s a shame we haven’t been there more often!  

One of my favourite West Ham memories was as an eleven-year-old at Wembley high up on the terrace behind the goal where Alan Sealey scored his two goals in the memorable 2-0 win over TSV Munich 1860 in May 1965, our first and so far only major European trophy (disregarding Inter-Toto which doesn’t really count). Incidentally the second leg of the semi-final that season was played on April 28th when we held Real Zaragoza of Spain to a 1-1 draw after a 2-1 win in the home leg.

We gained automatic entry into the competition the following season as winners and faced two German sides in the campaign. Germany was divided in two in those days and we met FC Magdeburg of East Germany in the Quarter Final winning the home leg 1-0 and then drawing 1-1 away to progress into the semi-final. There we met Borussia Dortmund of the West who were too strong beating us 2-1 at Upton Park and then 3-1 in Dortmund.

But my favourite ever West Ham game in the last 63 years was against Thursday’s opponents Eintracht Frankfurt. It was the second leg of the European Cup Winners Cup semi-final on 14th April 1976 where we overcame a 2-1 deficit from the first game with a 3-1 victory thanks to goals from Keith Robson and two from Sir Trev. I watched the game from the North Bank in pouring rain in an electric atmosphere with just under 40,000 inside the Boleyn Ground.

Where are our German opponents of the past now? Magdeburg are currently at the top (and destined to become champions of Bundesliga 3 (the third tier in Germany) whilst Munich 1860 are fourth in that same division. Borussia Dortmund are currently second to Bayern in the Bundesliga but Glasgow Rangers knocked them out of the Europa League competition 6-4 in the round of 16 before beating Braga in the Quarter Final to face RB Leipzig (who are currently fourth in the Bundesliga) in the Semi-Final. The winners of that will of course face either ourselves or Eintracht Frankfurt in the Final.

Frankfurt, despite their excellent win over Barcelona in the last round, are languishing in mid-table (9th) in the German league and should hold no fears for a West Ham side at our strongest and best. Frankfurt have saved their best performances for European games, similar to Lyons who were similarly placed in the French league when we met them in the Quarter Final (and perhaps similar to ourselves too).

Just like the Lyons tie, but the other way round to our meeting in 1976, we face the first leg at home. It would be useful to take a lead into the second leg but not absolutely crucial as we found out against Lyons. Wouldn’t it be great to repeat the 1976 score (3-1) from the home leg, especially with the removal of the away goals rule which I believe should have been scrapped years ago.

The European adventure (whatever happens now) has been great this season, and it would be excellent if we can go all the way to the Final and win the competition to qualify for the Champions League next season. Surely that would be a big help in recruitment in the summer for next season? The spirit within the squad continues to be high. Can we do it? I think we can. What are the chances?

Can The Hammers Make Sure The Lyon Sleeps Tonight (a-west-ham-a-way!)

Bonjour mes petits messieurs de Lyonnais, savez-vous que le West Ham est énorme partout où nous allons?

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!   

West Ham Expects: Cockney Brigade Can Roar The Hammers To Euro Victory

El Cid, King Juan Carlos, Placido Domingo, Don Quixote, Seve Ballesteros, Penelope Cruz, Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Your boys are going to take one hell of a beating …

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!

Will West Ham Reign In Spain Or Be Straight Back On The Plane?

The Hammers face a stern test with one of the toughest possible Europa League ties of the round. Can Moyes men triumph against six times winners, Sevilla?

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!

A League Of Their Own: Hammers Wind Up Their Europa Group Stage With The Visit Of Dinamo Zagreb

Will it be a case of just going through the motions as West Ham have already eased through to the Round of 16? A chance for fringe and academy players to shine.

Looking forward to West Ham’s final Europa League group game presents something of a conundrum. The group has already been won and the club will not want to risk further injuries to key players. But there is still a significant fixture to fulfil (with implication for final placings) and also a sizeable London Stadium crowd to entertain. Will it be a case of going through the motions or putting on a show while under no pressure?  

For the Hammers, there is only pride and a few hundred thousand of extra Euros in prize money at stake (to add to the almost €9 million already earned). For Dinamo Zagreb, the prospect of finishing second in the group and a crack at one the clubs eliminated from the Champion’s League remains a possibility. Or perhaps, they would fancy their chances of a longer European run by dropping down into the Conference.

We know by now seven of the eight teams dropping from the Champions League to compete in the Europa League Knockout play-offs. These are RB Leipzig, Porto, Dortmund, Sheriff, Barcelona, Sevilla, Zenit, plus one of Villareal or Atalanta. There are several intriguing opponents in that group with the potential for dramatic and electrifying nights under the London Stadium floodlights. The jeopardy of sudden death elimination is what makes cup football so special – when it finally comes alive!

West Ham’s recent dip in results reached an astonishing turnaround on Saturday lunchtime with a thrilling victory against league leaders, Chelsea. So shell-shocked was the visitor’s defence that they conceded three times again last night. Joy at the result was tempered to some extent by injuries to Kurt Zouma and Ben Johnson but it was still a day and result to savour.

Once again, Declan Rice was imperious as his market value ticks up faster than a petrol pump meter. He has just about every attribute that you could ask for in a modern midfield player – anticipation, positioning, strength, passing, interceptions, dribbling and shooting. He has now been inaugurated into my all-time best West Ham XI – the most recent addition since Paolo Di Canio.

There were outstanding performances elsewhere on the pitch as well. Defensively, we were sound in blunting Chelsea’s attacking intent while Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio were particularly impressive in attack during the second half. It was encouraging to see an excellent shift put in by a born again Manuel Lanzini, as was Said Benrahma’s 100% pass completion of the note from David Moyes to his captain – achieved without surrendering possession or accidentally giving it to an opponent.

Somehow, the nature of the winning goal fitted the occasion perfectly. Less King Arthur and more Merlin the magician – the enchanter of the Blues, whose sorcery bewitched and bewildered Mendy in the Chelsea goal. I would love to believe it was intentional even if Masuaku’s enigmatic tweet suggested otherwise. He just didn’t know that he meant it.

Masuaku will be one of handful of senior players featuring in tonight’s starting line-up. Joined by Alphonse Areola, Mark Noble, Andriy Yarmolenko, Nikola Vlasic and Alex Kral. I suspect one of the two senior centre-backs still standing will also start, and fancy this will be Issa Diop. The balance will be made up with academy players who will see it as an amazing opportunity. The predicted starting eleven: Areola, Ashby, Diop, Baptiste, Masuaku, Noble, Kral, Yarmolenko, Vlasic, Benrahma, Perkins.

The new variant of Covid is threatening to wreak havoc with team selection. Hopefully none of our squad have been out socialising down with their Tottenham counterparts at the Bottler’s Arms. Although, I do have a suspicion that Conte is attempting to get as many matches postponed as possible so that he can sign some decent players by the time the games are played.  

Dinamo Zagreb will take the runners-up spot in Group H is they avoid defeat tonight or if Genk fail to beat Rapid Vienna. Their campaign has been inconsistent so far but they may feel confident of holding on to second place given the West Ham’s lack of incentive. Although beaten 2-0 at home by Hadjuk Split on Sunday, Dinamo remain fourth in the Croatia league and are reasonably placed for a shout at a 23rd title.  

A drawn game tonight would be no huge surprise.