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.

Having Sunk In The Choppy Waters Of Wolverhampton How Will West Ham Negotiate The Rapids In Vienna?

Banking on bouncebackability as the Hammers seek to seal top spot in Europa League Group H and claim a place in the round of 16.

Losing was going to happen sooner or later but a tame one at Wolverhampton just as games against Manchester City and Chelsea appear on the horizon was not the best of timings. A chance, hopefully, to use the Europa League clash in Vienna to get the show back on the road and prove that Saturday was nothing more than a bump along the way.

West Ham have earned a reputation as a reliable, well-oiled machine in recent months but too many of its parts had seized up at Molineux. Few, if any, of the outfield players were close to their own high standards of performance as the hosts thoroughly deserved to coast to victory.

Ironically, the Hammers had made a really lively start to the game, but once Wolves had settled, they dominated – their extra man in midfield and the enterprise of their wing-backs stifling West Ham’s attacking ambitions and creating scoring opportunities of their own.

Although the West Ham downfall was largely down to sub-par individual performances, I do wonder whether the 4-2-3-1 formation is too rigid and predictable under certain circumstances. Particularly in the absence of greater imagination and orchestration in the centre of attacking midfield. Manuel Lanzini was an improvement when he replaced the off-colour Said Benrahma, but neither of them or Nikola Vlasic are influential or involved enough to pull the strings. Indeed, I have yet to see anything in Vlasic to get excited about. Maybe he will come good but there are so many aspects of his game that require improvement. Arguably, Pablo Fornals is the best equipped from the current squad to play that role, but he too was ineffective at Wolves.

It was a similar story with Michail Antonio who barely put a foot right all afternoon after his exertions in the international break. Despite West Ham flying his home early on a private jet it appears his ball control was left in the baggage reclaim. A touch of jet lag is a possibility, although an equivalent trek had done Raul Jimenez no harm. No surprise that Antonio will not feature at all today.

I thought defensively we looked adequate at the weekend even if the Kurt Zouma/ Carig Dawson partnership was a little clumsy. Surprising how difficult Zouma found it playing on the left side in the absence of Angelo Ogbonna. I hope we see Zouma paired with Issa Diop tonight to see how that works out. Aaron Cresswell and Ben Johnson also did OK but didn’t get forward enough for my liking. Supporting the attack and getting in behind the opposition defence is where Vladimir Coufal shades it over Johnson.    

The final conundrum is how to get the best out of both Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek. The flourishing of Rice this season has been partially balanced out by the struggles of Soucek. His more withdrawn role does not play to his attacking strength of the late runs into the box. He doesn’t have the range of passing to truly boss the current role.

Had it not been for a late Soucek OG in Genk, tonight’s game in Vienna might have been something of a formality as far as Group H is concerned. As it is, West Ham need more points and Rapid will believe they can still be playing European football after Christmas. Perhaps it is to the Hammer’s advantage that the hosts really do need to win to make that happen – better suited than inviting us to break them down.

Rapid have won one and lost one since their last Europa League outing and now sit 5th of 12 in the Austrian league, a whopping twenty points behind runaway leaders RB Salzburg.

There will be a sense of déjà vu (all over again) with the return of the eerie behind closed doors atmosphere. Recent experiences shouldn’t affect the teams too drastically although the trend of empty stadia favouring away sides is comforting.

Predicted line up for tonight is: Areola, Coufal, Diop, Zouma, Cresswell, Rice, Kral, Yarmolenko, Vlasic, Benrahma, Bowen

Predicted score: West Ham to win 2 – 1.

West Ham Plan A Night To Remember On Faraway Flanders Field

West Ham visit Genk hoping to secure top spot in Group H and to celebrate David Moyes’ 1000th managerial outing. Predicted line-up and score.

The West Ham bandwagon rolls onto Genk tonight to kick-off the second round of Europa League group matches. Victory tonight will all but guarantee the Hammers top spot in the group and a straight through passage to the Round of 16 – bypassing the qualifying round against teams dropping out of the Champions League.

The game will also be a landmark for David Moyes as he takes charge for the 1000th time in his managerial career. Of all the managers who have sat in the West Ham hot seat he is now behind only Sam Allardyce (1060) and Harry Redknapp (1395) in all-time gaffer longevity. Although Moyes will also surpass Slaven Bilic’s 111 games as Hammer’s boss tonight, he is only 10th in the club’s own manager stats – some way behind John Lyall’s 708.

It would make sense for Moyes to do everything he can to win tonight, even with a top of the table clash with Liverpool looming at the weekend. Victory would open up greater opportunities to rotate the squad in the final two group games during the busy run of games following the next international break. He will also want to win his 1000th game!

The trickiest selection dilemma will be whether Aaron Cresswell starts yet again at left back. The overworked Cresswell has barely had a rest this season but with no natural left sided replacement it is a dilemma – particularly up against tricky Japanese winger, Junya Ito. Ben Johnson can possibly cover at left back now that Vladimir Coufal is fit again to slot back in on the right. The impressive Johnson has been in terrific form of late and is more than capable of fulfilling defensive duties on the left. He has never looked comfortable, however, getting forward effectively on his weaker side.

Tomas Soucek could be due for a break tonight but I believe that both Declan Rice and Michail Antonio will be starters. My predicted lineup is: Areola, Coufal, Dawson, Diop, Johnson, Rice, Noble, Yarmolenko, Lanzini, Fornals, Antonio.

I doubt imagine many of us have ever visited Genk, unless you missed your turning on the way from Antwerp to Liege. It is an old coal mining centre whose claim to fame is being the third most significant town in Flanders (at least that’s what Wikipedia says). A Belgian equivalent of Barnsley perhaps, although it may well be very pleasant now that the mines have closed.

After their 3-0 defeat at the London Stadium, Genk went down by the same scoreline a few days later against Gent, before bouncing back with two thumping wins. The first, a 6-0 cup win away to third tier Winkel Sport, followed by a 6-2 Belgian league win at Zulte Waregem. They now sit 7th (of 18) in the standings.

We saw in the home fixture between the two sides that Genk can pose an attacking threat. But they are clearly vulnerable at the back. While the Hammers Europa clean sheet may be at some risk, they should have more than enough firepower to bother and outscore the Belgians. A 3-1 win for the happy Hammers. COYI!

Resilient Hammers Set To Consolidate Europa Group Top Spot Against Erratic Genk

A third consecutive Europa League victory will put West Ham firmly in charge of the group and on course for early qualification to the round of sixteen in March

A return to Europa League action for West Ham tonight as they face Racing Gent in their third round of six Group H games.  With two wins already in the bag (against a Dinamo and a Rapid) another victory would effectively ensure European involvement extending Christmas. Even if a further win or two may be required to secure the all-important top spot.

If it wasn’t for the success of their football club, I doubt many of us would have ever heard of Genk. How educational following football can be! They have become one of the dominant clubs in Belgian football in recent years, winning four championship titles and lifting the cup five times. They have been regular participants in European competition since the late 1990s and have qualified for the Champions League group stage on three occasions, most recently in 2019/20.

In 2020/21, Genk finished fourth in the regular season but had climbed their way up to second place by the end of the convoluted playoff round. Their reward was entry into the third qualifying round of the Champions League, where they were beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk – and dropped down into the Europa League draw.

The game against Genk will be the third time West Ham have faced Belgian opposition have faced in European competition. The Hammers very first European tie in the 1964/65 ECWC campaign was against Gent (then known by their French name, La Gantoise), which they won 2-1 on aggregate. The second encounter though led to a less successful outcome when Anderlecht defeated West Ham 4-2 in the final of the same competition at the Heysel Stadium in May 1975.

West Ham go into the game in good spirits following an excellent showing at Goodison Park on Sunday. But they will also have one eye on the visit of the Harry Kane eleven at the weekend. As with previous rounds, resources will need to be managed carefully to navigate tonight’s tie while keeping as many of the regulars as possible fit and fresh for Sunday’s blockbuster.

The Hammers squad has a more robust look to it these days. There is greater depth and when we have seen players coming in, they have looked very well drilled as to what the system demands of them. However, with probable absences due to injury and infections, the potential for rotation may not be as great as before.

The main pressure points are well known: striker and left back. West Ham are not the same team when missing the physical strength of Michail Antonio as the arrowhead in attack. It is not just his goals that are important – his presence is pivotal to much of the transition from defence to attack. If he is not risked tonight the attacking threat will be much diminished without an obvious replacement.

 Aaron Cresswell has played every match this season apart from the League Cup tie at Old Trafford. The squad has no specialist left back replacement to give him a break. While Ben Johnson can move across as emergency cover, subject to the fitness of Vladimir Coufal and Ryan Fredericks, it is not his best position. Arthur Masuaku is a possibility as left wing back – I doubt that David Moyes will elect to change formation for this one – but gets too distracted when defending.

Elsewhere, there will be likely Europa recalls for Alphonse Areola, Craig Dawson, Issa Diop, Manuel Lanzini and Nikola Vlasic. Plus, Mark Noble may replace Tomas Soucek in central midfield if his injury situation allows.

Genk have lost each of their last three games and have slipped to midtable in the Belgian League. While they won their Europa League opener in Vienna, they subsequently lost heavily at home to Zagreb.

One player likely to standout for Genk is 6ft 7in Nigerian striker, Paul Onuachu, one of the many strikers linked to the Hammers during the transfer window. Will be interested to see how he does. They also feature an Englishman in Ike Ugbo, a former Chelsea youth teammate of Declan Rice who moved to Belgium in search of regular football in the summer..

Genk appear to get through almost as many managers as Watford. The current incumbent is John van den Brom from the Netherlands who joined in November 2020. The managerial alumni includes Alex McLeish (for one disappointing season in 2014/5) who was once courted for (but turned down) the West Ham hotseat following the departure of Harry Redknapp.

On paper, this looks a relatively straightforward assignment for West Ham. But no game can be taken lightly – or taken for granted. Genk typically score in most of their games, even when they lose, and concentration will be required to keep that Europa league clean sheet intact. It will be an important game to win and victory here, and in the return leg in a fortnight’s time, should be enough seal top spot in the group.

Another 2-0 home win for the Hammers. COYI!      

Rapid Strides: West Ham Ready To Set The Pace At The Top Of Group H

The Hammers continental campaign continues with the visit of Rapid Vienna to the London Stadium. A home victory will allow West Ham to take control of the group.

European football makes its long-awaited return to the east-end tonight as West Ham look to build on their successful start in Zagreb and stay on course for the knockout stages of the Europa League.

Group stage cup football is a new experience for the Hammers and although it may lack the jeopardy of sudden death elimination, it does provide a guarantee of at least three home fixtures for fans to enjoy. It will be interesting to see how that impacts the attendance – I would expect a crowd somewhere north of 40,000 for today’s visit of Rapid Vienna.

Finishing top of Group H and avoiding the Preliminary knockout round, when third placed teams from the Champion’s League groups drop into the competition, would be a huge bonus. Win the three home games and that would be a big step through to the last sixteen.

The progress of Premier League clubs in the Champion’s League has not bothered me much in recent years but I’m now hoping they all qualify from their groups. I will happily trade the schadenfreude of their elimination for not having to face home opposition in the latter stages.

The game against Rapid Vienna will be West Ham’s first competitive encounter with Austrian opposition. Rapid are the most successful club ever in Austrian football having won the league thirty-two times, and the cup fourteen times. They twice reached the final of the European Cup Winners Cup but lost on both occasions.

Having finished second in the Austrian Bundesliga last season they have struggled for results in a hectic start to the new season. Tonight, will be their twenty-first competitive fixture – against West Ham’s ninth. Rapid were eliminated from Champion’s League qualifying by Sparta Prague but then went on to beat teams from Cyprus and Ukraine in reaching the Europa League group stage, where they lost their opening game at home to Genk. They have also struggled for domestic league form and currently sit eleventh placed out of twelve teams.

David Moyes will want to get the home campaign off to a storming start in front of an expectant crowd. It needs the selection of a strong side although there could well be starts for squad players such as Alphonse Areola, Ben Johnson, Issa Diop, Craig Dawson, Alex Kral and Manuel Lanzini. Perhaps the biggest question is whether the club’s lone striker Michail Antonio is given a start or is kept as emergency standby on the bench.

Possible line-up: Areola, Johnson, Zouma, Diop, Cresswell, Rice, Kral, Vlasic, Lanzini, Benrahma, Bowen

The Europa League promises to be a great experience for the club and its supporters. It may also be a more realistic route to Champion’s League qualification than a top four Premier League finish at this point in time – although, there is, of course, still a long way to go. A win today will be another step for the Hammers in staking their claim at the top of the group. Accepting that no game is ever easy – and nothing can be taken for granted – I still forecast a clear West Ham victory here tonight – by two or three goals. COYI!