Preview: West Ham v Manchester City

I Have a Dream! West Ham make the trip north to face Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.

West Ham at Man CityI had a strange dream last night. No, not that kind of dream! I was appearing on a quiz show and was just being asked the £1 million question. The quiz show itself was a mixture of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, A Question of Sport, Mastermind and Deal or No Deal. One minute I was facing Chris Tarrant, then Sue Barker, then Magnus Magnusson and then Noel Edmonds. I was sitting on a chair in front of an audience, then I was part of a team with Phil Tufnell, then I was on a black chair in darkness, and finally Noel Edmonds was asking me the question, Deal or No Deal, only to be interrupted by a telephone call from the banker, who then wanted to make me another offer.

The question I was being asked was “What Happened Next?” Four football matches were being described to me and I had to select the correct answer to win the money. In the first game West Ham were playing Manchester City and were winning the game 4-1, then in the second game West Ham were again playing City and once again were leading 4-1. In the third game I had the same situation, West Ham were beating Manchester City 4-1 close to the end of the game. And yes you’ve guessed it, the fourth game was exactly the same, we were beating them 4-1.

I was confused. I kept telling them there were four different answers. Chris Tarrant wanted to know if I wanted to phone a friend, Magnus said he’d started so he’d finish, Matt Dawson was in fits of laughter, Jeremy Paxman was telling me I’d have to hurry (how did University Challenge get in?), Noel Edmonds wanted to know if I wanted to swap my box, and the phone was ringing. I told them there were different occasions when we were beating City 4-1, how could I know what one they were referring to? Thankfully, at that point I woke up in a sweat. Yes, it has been very warm at night lately.

I can only blame myself. I was thinking about this week’s game at the Etihad and before going to bed I was looking back on previous memorable encounters with City that I remember well. There was the game at Maine Road in 1970 at Maine Road when Jimmy Greaves made his debut for us and scored twice, Ronnie Boyce scored from the half way line and we won the game 5-1, to gain our revenge on a 4-0 home defeat to them just three months earlier.

Then there was a game at Upton Park about twelve years later when Sandy Clark scored a brace (don’t you just love that phrase) in a 4-1 win. Then in 1996 Iain Dowie scored a couple of goals as we thrashed them 4-2, again at Upton Park, with Niall Quinn scoring City’s second as the referee blew the final whistle. Lastly in November 2000, we recovered from a half-time 1-0 deficit, with goals from Steve Lomas, Stuart Pearce, Trevor Sinclair (all three of whom ironically have a City connection) and finally a penalty from Paolo in the last minute to record another 4-1 victory.

So what will happen on Sunday? We have a mounting injury crisis which shows little sign of ending. Last September when we surprisingly won the away game 2-1 we had the following starting line-up: Adrian, Jenkinson, Tomkins, Reid, Cresswell, Noble, Obiang, Lanzini, Payet, Moses and Sakho. The goals were scored by Moses and Sakho. Antonio, Jelavic and Collins were second half substitutes. It was one of our famous away victories in the last campaign. How times change. How many of that starting line-up will begin Sunday’s game?

When the return fixture was played at Upton Park in January, Valencia scored twice in a 2-2 draw, making it four goals that he scored in under a fortnight. How many goals has he scored since that game?

In my lifetime I can only ever recall one goalless draw in an away league game at City (in 1994) and I don’t expect another this weekend. I have a feeling that the score may be 4-1, and that we will be on the losing end. I hope not, but our performances to date have not been encouraging. But even if we do lose the game we will still be on three points, exactly the same tally as we had after three games last season. And this time, two of the season’s toughest away games will have been played, whereas last season two of our first three games were at home.

Despite Thursday’s poor show, it’s not all doom and gloom. We can dream that it will get better. And congratulations to Adrian on his first call up to the Spanish squad. Perhaps he can keep a clean sheet to celebrate?

West Ham 0 v 1 Astra Giurgiu

Just Not Good Enough! When you set out for a walk in the park and end up flat on your face.

Angry Slaven BilicAs Super Slav sat down to select his team and squad to face Romanian champions Astra Giurgiu, he was fully aware of the delicate balancing act needed to win the game and hence qualify for the Europa League group stage, whilst at the same time not compromising his team selection for the difficult away Premier League game at Manchester City on Sunday. He was unable to do this last season but now had a much stronger squad to pick from despite the injuries and unavailable players. Or so we thought. He stated this was his strongest possible team. Captain Mark Noble had a slight knock and was not risked. It was disappointing to see Randolf displayed on the scoreboard instead of Randolph. It was even more disappointing to see Bilic start with just one forward in a home game against a team as poor as this.

On eight minutes Calleri, following a superb through ball from Burke, found himself one on one with the keeper and should have scored, but just like the last minute of the Bournemouth game, failed to do so. Full backs Byram and Burke caught the eye early on, and a superb strike from Obiang on 14 minutes came close to breaking the deadlock. But we weren’t showing enough urgency. We were moving the ball too slowly. Surely we weren’t playing for a 0-0 draw?

The German referee tried to keep the game flowing when Romanians were committing fouls, but seemed to be pulling us up regularly. Half time had almost arrived when the 35 year old ex-West Brom player Teixeira finished off a slick move reminiscent of one of the Juventus goals a couple of weeks back. Unfortunately the Astra counter attack was created by Byram and Burke perhaps revealing their inexperience. Oh how we longed for the creativity of a Payet, Lanzini, or Feghouli to come off the bench in the second half, but of course none of them were available.

Astra had only kept one clean sheet in twelve previous away games in Europe and that was in Scotland at Inverness. Surely it was only a matter of time before we equalised? We raised the tempo early in the second half and Calleri missed a header that Sandra Redknapp would have scored. Fletcher, who was one of the only players who could be happy with his performance, could have had a penalty, and should have scored from six yards but aimed straight at the keeper. But he was only the second choice attacking substitute and had barely half an hour to make his mark.

Valencia had come on at half time, but apart from one half decent free kick, just did his usual running down blind alleys. Antonio missed a header, albeit not as easy as you might think, from about four yards out. We continued to press forward, but a long time before the end of the game you just knew we weren’t going to score. And we didn’t. In some ways it was reminiscent of watching England play Poland in 1973. Just as then we thought we only had to turn up to win.

The German referee fell for all the Astra spoiling tactics and had a shocking game. But so did so many of our team who just weren’t good enough. If you could have seen that coming you could have made a lot of money. Astra were 8/1 with the bookies at the start. Some West Ham fans were fighting each other. The stewards let them get on with it. The crowd were getting very hostile. If only we’d seen more fight from the players, especially in the first half. According to reports Simone Zaza is expected to sign for us on Friday. I wonder if he was watching tonight?

Match Scene: West Ham v Astra Giurgiu

Surely a walk in the Olympic Park tonight and guaranteed Europa League group stage qualification.

Home to AstraTonight the nomads of FC Astra Giurgiu are the visitors to the London Stadium for the Europa League Play Off Round second leg match. With the tie finally balanced at a goal apiece from the away leg in Romania it will be an evening high on expectation but no doubt with a drop of typical West Ham nerve-wracking tension thrown in.

Many an old timer will be more than pleased to tell you for the price of half a pint of stout and an arrowroot biscuit that their favourite Upton Park night was the European Cup Winners Cup (ECWC) semi final second leg against Eintract Frankfurt in 1976. (I always maintain that the ECWC was a superior and far more difficult competition to succeed in than the old European Cup; contested as it was by teams proven to be good at winning cups.)

Going in to the game 2-1 down from the first leg it was a night where Sir Trev imperiously glided over the sodden pitch surface; scoring twice as the Hammers raced into a 3-0 lead. Fearing that this lacked the requisite drama, the Germans were gifted a late goal meaning that if they scored again it would be they to go through on the away goals rule. Cue a whistle blowing, nail biting, nervous hopping finale.

“They beat us last year and it is not job done. We have had enough time to recover from Sunday and I am optimistic.”

– Super Slav

I fully expect something similar to happen tonight. Cruise into a two goal lead, take the foot off the pedal, concede a sloppy goal, followed by an exhibition of sloppy slapstick defending before scoring a breakaway third in added time.

Head to Head

This is our fourth encounter against the current Romanian champions and, to date, we have yet to beat them (2 draws and 1 defeat). I have seen many reports stating that we lost to Astra at the same stage last year but this is not the case – we have progressed a whole round further so far this time around. Romainian champions they may be but I fully expect us to get the win that secures group stage qualification – but then I have been disappointed (and wrong) before.

Team News

The usual suspects of Cresswell, Carroll, Ayew, Sakho and Feghouli remain absent injured. Masuaku and Lanzini are not registered to play tonight but Dimitri Payet may now be available. Slaven Bilic has suggested that it will be a strong side and it will be a balance between doing what is necessary and keeping fresh legs for Sunday’s trip to the Etihad.

In the unlikely event that I were asked to pick the team I would start with Payet, to give him some match time and look for an early advantage, but leave Noble and Kouyate on the bench until needed; as both could do with a breather. This is how I would line-up (subject to availability):

My team v Astra

The Man in the Middle

We have a German referee tonight in the shape of Manuel Grafe from Berlin. Grafe was the ref for the goalless Euro 2012 qualifier between England and Montenegro where he was ‘blasted’ by Wayne Rooney for giving England’s players “no protection whatsoever” – and for not awarding any penalties.

All change: Trains, missing seats and standing orders!

Travel difficulties and the matchday stadium experience.

Rail MapWe set out from Bury St Edmunds at noon looking forward the third opening game at the London Stadium. The Domzale game was the first, Juventus came next, and now the first home league game. We drove to Epping, parked the car, and boarded the westbound Central Line train at around 1.15 anticipating arrival in Stratford 30 minutes later.

Within minutes we knew this would not be the case. A message (from the driver) informed us that the train would be going no further than Leytonstone due to an incident at Mile End. No problem, no doubt we can get a bus from there we thought. The train reached Loughton at 1.30 and we all had to get off; it was going no further. And no trains would be going beyond Loughton until further notice as there was a person on the track at Mile End.

We milled around on the platform and discussed the problem with fellow supporters who we didn’t know, who became known to us as Paul and his son, Owen, and Rich. After a short conversation Paul said his car was parked close to Loughton Station so we could drive to a nearby overground station. Five of us set off in his car without a destination in mind as we drove away, and used mobiles and google to try to work out the best route to Stratford.

Google and tfl suggested Chingford to Hackney Downs, walk to Hackney Central and then train to Stratford. Parking was easy in Chingford on a Sunday, train connections arrived with no delays and the walk in Hackney was via a footbridge which apparently reduced the walk from 600 metres to 200 metres. We were there in plenty of time for the game.

The atmosphere beforehand was good, Bubbles was loud, and we settled down for what turned out to be a dull, uneventful game. Geoff’s article “Five Things We Learned From This Week’s West Ham Game” tells you all you need to know about the game itself.

Stand upThe stadium still has some teething problems. There was the continued issue of those who wish to watch the game whilst standing. The club had to reduce the capacity to 57,000 for safety reasons because of the refusal of a number, mainly in the lower tiers, who insisted on not using the seats provided for them. I can understand their frustration as in my younger days I preferred to stand at football games and did so for many years. I can also see the other side of the issue – people who wanted to sit but who were in seats behind those who were standing. “We’re West Ham United, we’ll stand if we want” those on their feet sang, some of whom didn’t appear to be taking much notice of the game itself.

The stewards moved in en masse and tried to reason with the standing supporters but no luck, they weren’t sitting for anyone. On my journey home I read social media where some of those standing were boasting of how they had seen off the stewards and got their own way. I also read others who had written that the stewards were mainly just taking seat numbers. They went on to say that, if the club were true to their word and wanted to eradicate the standing, and hence get a safety certificate to increase the potential crowd numbers, they would be writing to the “transgressors”. It would be a warning to them that if they refused to follow instructions then their season tickets would be withdrawn, and they would effectively be banned. Some were apparently ejected from the ground during the game, although I don’t know how many. The row continues on social media, and will no doubt still be an issue on Thursday.

56 people who had bought seats found that there were no seats for them to sit on – an administrative error I heard. They sat on the concrete or stood I suppose? The club apologised and said the seats would be there on Thursday.

Apparently the attendance was 56,977 leaving just 23 unfilled seats. There were many more than 23 with no occupants so these must have been the 3,000 that were reduced from the original expected 60,000. The club had obviously spread these around the stadium but some news reports were mischievously (I thought) trying to emphasise supporters not turning up. Perhaps the Mile End incident was another factor?

I was interested in the figure of 23 short of a whole thousand. On seven different occasions last season the official attendance at our home games was recorded as exactly 34,977, 23 short of 35,000. Incredible coincidence don’t you think?

5 Things About Bournemouth At Home

Five things that we learned from the home fixture this weekend.

5 Things WHUIt’s our new stadium now; there is no going back.

It certainly wasn’t the greatest performance but getting off to a winning start was a definite bonus.  Having a “they haven’t won yet since they moved to Stratford” tag hanging over us would have been bad for morale and blood pressure.  I suppose you get the same three points whether you grind them out or win them effusively so, for now,  we should put them in the bank and move on.  It moves us up to 10th spot and in the old days we would have been more than happy to be on the first page of Teletext.

Empty seats
Picture from BBC Match Report

The atmosphere at stadium seemed decent enough at the start but became subdued as the game failed to take off.  The occasion and injuries may have been contributory factors but are things we need to deal with.  Very strange that in setting a new club record home attendance of almost 57,000 it was reported so negatively on the BBC which used a zoomed in photo of a small empty bank of seats to illustrate their story.

No Payet, No Outlet, No Penetration

There were a few very smart periods of play during the game with crisp passing and movement but which then fizzled out with no end product is this what Slaven Bilic frowned on last season as “playing too sexy”?  There was no sexy foreplay from Havard Nordtveit who treated the ball as something nasty that he wanted to be rid of, and as far away as possible, whenever it came into his possession.  We know from last season that we struggle to create when Payet (and perhaps Lanzini to some extent) is missing.  In the 8 games where he was absent last term we won just once and scored only 6 times – scoring 59 times in the 30 league games where he played.

Without Payet there is no outlet, no-one to pull the strings or bring a semblance of control.  The lack of a frontman who can contribute more than two touches at any one time does not help.

It’s good to have some full-backs back

.Looking at he positives out of the game I think we can be pleased with the performances of the two full backs.  Arthur Masuaku is a solid addition to the squad and looks more than a stopgap for the enforced absence of Aaron Cresswell.  Maybe not quite as adventurous going forward but seemed to be defensively sound.  There was also an assured performance from Sam Byram who as well as defending well is always looking to use the ball the ball wisely.  He does seem to be an avid collector of yellow cards having received 5 in a total of 8 appearances.  He could well have received two in the same passage of play yesterday as he twice sought to take one for the team within a few seconds.  May well be suspended before the clocks go back.

The man who has no imagination has no wing(er)s.

Our manager is a man who likes wingers.  It is how they play in Croatia and why we now have half a squad of them.  Both Antonio and Tore blew hot and cold yesterday but then that is often the way with these guys.  It seemed to me (unsurprisingly I thought) that both were more effective when playing on their natural foot even though Tore has spent much of his career playing on the right.  It reminded me of when Trevor Sinclair was played on the left in a bid to secure an England call-up.
The major bonus with Antonio is that he is always likely to come up with a goal and despite a couple of chances where he might have done better it was his headed goal from a perfect left wing Tore cross that made the difference on the scoresheet.

Possession is nine-tenths of running down the clock.

We have never been the strongest at keeping possession and running down the clock.  Having just seen Middlesboro do it so effectively in the closing stages of the Tyne-Wear derby it was noticeable how difficult it is for West Ham.  The stats may show that the team with less possession wins but it is dangerous to adopt it as a tactic in the last few minutes where the opposition are desperately in search of an equaliser – even with 10 men.  Invariably we give the ball away cheaply and the simple task of keeping it in safe areas of the pitch is beyond us.  We did have two chances for a breakaway during the time.  The first where Mark Noble appeared to be running in treacle which came to nothing and the second where Calleri really should have added a second.  Ultimately it took a fine Adrian save and desperate Reid block to keep things even.

Match Scene: West Ham v Bournemouth

The latest in the series of first ever games at the new stadium.

West Ham BournemouthSo after the actual opening game and the official opening game we are finally getting down to the real business of the opening league fixture at the new Stratford stadium.  In the process we will be setting a new club record home league attendance surpassing the 42,322 (including my teenage self) that were squeezed into Upton Park for the 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur in October 1970.

Today’s visitors may now have taken on our pre-state aid mantle of everyone’s second favourite team following their unlikely (usually termed as fairy-tale) rise from the lower reaches of the league pyramid to the very top table of English football.  A creditable mid-table finish last season did nothing to diminish the reputation of bobby-dazzling Bournemouth manager, Eddie Howe – only signing Jordan Ibe for £15 million has been able to do that.

“You can’t expect seven goals in any game nowadays but they happen, I expect us to be much more concentrated and much more solid than we were in that game.”

– Super Slav

Head to Head

There is only a 7 match history between the two teams.  The first meeting was a 5th round cup tie in 1929 against the then Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic was followed by a 60 year wait for re-match against an AFC Bournemouth side managed by Harry Redknapp.  Last season’s match at Upton Park was the first Hammer’s defeat in the series; the full record is shown below:

P W D L F A Sequence
Home 4 3 0 1 12 6 WWWL
Away 3 1 2 0 5 3 DDW
Total 7 4 2 1 17 9

Team News

Rumours circulating on the internet suggest that every West Ham outfield player, with the exception of Mark Noble, is unavailable through injury for this game.  Our usual inside Under The Hammers sources were too busy taking out the bins to either confirm or deny the reports which have, in any case, been made up in a poorly disguised attempt to get visitors to the site.

“The obvious threat is with Andy Carroll’s aerial ability and that is a threat we are going to have to try to counteract.  “He is slightly different and is quite unique in this day and age. If you go back 10 to 15 years, there were a lot of similar type strikers in a similar mould and, in the Premier League, the majority of those players have gone.”

– Eddie Howe

Longer term injuries continue to plague Ayew, Cresswell, Lanzini, Sakho and Feghouli and none will be available for consideration today.  Physio Room also shows Payet and Nordtvelt suffering from knocks but there is nothing on Kouyate who sat out the midweek match in Romania, again with an apparent knock.  More speculative chatter, which to be honest would be no big surprise, is that Andy Carroll is broken again – once again proving that he is ‘unplayable’.  I also came across comments by Slaven Bilic about not rushing Payet back to the action following his exertions at the Euros so maybe he is still a little tired, bless!

Former Hammer, Junior Stanislas, who has just signed a new 3 year deal with Bournemouth is absent from their squad (with a scary sounding inguinal hernia injury) but new signing Marc Wilson, formerly of Stoke City, may make a first start.

The Man in the Middle

Today’s potential short-sighted official is Craig Pawson from South Yorkshire.  Pawson, who as luck would have it is a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, took charge of the two exciting home draws against Manchester City and Arsenal last term.  You may remember it was Pawson who did the double dirty on Manuel Lanzini in the latter match by incorrectly disallowing a headed (what would have been opening) goal and then denying a blatant penalty following a foul challenge by Bellerin.  Suffice to say that Craig owes us one.

Preview: West Ham v Bournemouth

We’d much prefer to be beside the seaside as Bournemouth become the very first league visitors to our new Stratford home.

Home to BournemouthIf you qualify to play in Europe after a successful Premier League campaign then you must expect the games to come thick and fast. And that is exactly what is happening. Less than a week ago we began the league season with a 2-1 defeat at Chelsea. Just three days later we were drawing 1-1 in Romania. And less than 72 hours will elapse before we take to the field for the very first home Premier League game in front of 57,000 spectators on Sunday at our new stadium.

For the second season in a row the fixtures computer has arranged for us to play Bournemouth on the same weekend in August. And both times the game has been in London when many of our fans may have preferred a trip to the seaside in the summer, rather than on a cold January evening as was the case last season. But if we think the schedule is hectic this year we need to remember that last season the home Bournemouth game was our fifth competitive home game of the season and our ninth game overall!

Last August it was a nightmare game from a defensive viewpoint as we conceded four times in a seven goal thriller. A great game for the neutrals as Slaven Bilic said, although I doubt there were many neutral spectators at Upton Park on that hot Saturday afternoon. Jenkinson and Cresswell both chose the same day to play their worst games in a claret and blue shirt, but neither will be playing this time of course. And virtually everybody in the ground on Sunday will be hoping that Antonio is not selected to occupy the right back position, although most will hope he is in the team!

“But if we think the schedule is hectic this year we need to remember that last season the home Bournemouth game was our fifth competitive home game of the season and our ninth game overall!”

Of course one look at the early league table reveals that this game is one of the season’s first six pointers with both ourselves and our visitors pointless after our opening matches. We scored three goals against them in both games last season and we are looking for another three goals and three points to open our account this term.

This is the twenty-fifth season of the Premier League so nobody younger than thirty will remember the old days when the top tier was called Division One. We did not participate in that opening season of the Premier League in 1992 as we had been relegated after finishing bottom of Division One the previous May in the famous bond scheme season that provoked ugly protests. It was these off field matters which many believed contributed to many poor performances on the field. So despite relegation from Division One we still found ourselves in Division One which was the name given to the second tier at the time, which is now known as the Championship of course.

Interestingly, in that season, which culminated in promotion to the Premier League for the first time the following May with a last day victory over Cambridge, we had our first home game on 22 August, a day later than this year. On that day we went down to Charlton by a single goal of the game in front of just 17,000 at Upton Park. For the next home game a fortnight later fewer than 12,000 were there for the visit of Watford, and the home attendance continued to fall game by game hitting a low of just over 10,000 for the visit of Sunderland in October, when we recorded a 6-0 victory. How times change when we consider that many are disappointed with the restriction to just 57,000 on Sunday!

Astra Giurgiu 1:1 West Ham

Drawing a blank on a European awayday.

Reece Burke v AstraOn Tuesday, Manchester City went to Romania to face the team currently sitting in second place in the Romanian League, Steaua Bucharest. City thrashed them 5-0, missed two penalties, and quite frankly could have run up a cricket score. Steaua, like their close Bucharest rivals Dinamo, have dominated Romanian football with forty-one league titles between them, shared almost equally, and are the two biggest teams in the country.

Two days later we visited the same country and traveled forty miles south of Bucharest to play against the Romanian champions, Astra Giurgiu, who won the title for the first time last season. This season they are in some disarray and have made a poor start, currently occupying ninth place in the league. Astra themselves have spent the majority of their existence in the lower leagues, and are considered to be a much smaller club than the two big Bucharest teams. We could only draw 1-1.

The result could have been so much better. Shortly before the Astra equaliser we missed a golden opportunity to extend our lead to 2-0 which would effectively have put the tie to bed.  Substitute Marcus Browne’s breakaway was excellent but his unselfish pass across the goal still left Antonio with a bit to do. I reckon he would still have been disappointed to miss the target though. It’s amazing how often missed chances lead to a goal shortly afterwards at the other end and this is exactly what happened a minute or so later. Slack defending at a corner, with Byram seemingly retreating from his original position covering the near post cross, and Collins making an uncharacteristically flimsy challenge for the ball, allowed our opponents an equaliser that perhaps they deserved for their spirited fight back in the second half.

……we looked increasingly vulnerable when Collins came on and we changed to a back three.This gave our opponents the initiative and was perhaps a tactical error by our manager.

In the opening period headers from debutant Calleri and Antonio, who looked more comfortable in an attacking role, almost gave us the lead. Then just before half time an Astra defender inexplicably handled in the area. The referee spotted the infringement and Noble calmly netted the spot kick, his twenty-eighth successful conversion from the spot from thirty-one attempts, including fourteen of the last fifteen.

When comparing our result to that attained by Manchester City it emphasises how far we are away from challenging at the very top. However there was not a lot in the Astra Giurgiu performance to suggest that they should block our path into the group stage when we meet them in the return in Stratford next week.

Defensively our young back line of Byram, Oxford, Burke, and the more experienced Ogbonna coped quite well, but we looked increasingly vulnerable when Collins came on and we changed to a back three. This gave our opponents the initiative and was perhaps a tactical error by our manager. Obiang was tidy as a defensive midfielder and plays a similar role to Nordtveit. Bilic seems to prefer our new recruit whereas personally I like Obiang and I think it will be a loss if he is on his way out as persistent rumours are suggesting.

In attack, Calleri looked as if he could be useful, although it was difficult to tell in this one game. The jury is still out on Tore although he looked a little better than he did against Chelsea. Carroll is Carroll and needs better service to benefit from his strengths. Antonio looked quite good playing in an unaccustomed attacking role! He was certainly our most promising and dangerous offensive player. Valencia continued to run down blind alleys.

I look forward to seeing us attack teams with Ayew, Carroll, Payet, Feghouli, Lanzini, Kouyate, Noble and Antonio, although how many of those will, or can be, fitted into the team (or even matchday squad) at once remains to be seen. Because of injuries that is a long way off, and it will be interesting to see if the club has the willingness to invest in further attacking players, especially recognised goalscorers, before the transfer window “slams” shut in a couple of weeks time. Surely if Valencia and Sakho leave then it is a must.

Setting The Scene: Away to Astra

The tension builds as West Ham seek to build a winning first-leg foundation.

Europa League AstraWest Ham have travelled to Romania for tonight’s Europa League qualifying play-off first leg tie against the Black Devils of FC Astra Giurgui (Kick Off 19:15 BST). It was Astra who ended the Hammer’s European dream last season with a 4-3 aggregate win in our only previous encounter with the current Romanian champions. Previous meetings with Romanian opposition in Europe competition (where we have yet to record an away victory) saw UEFA Cup elimination to Steaua Bucharest in 1999 and victory against Poli Timisoara in the 1980/81 Cup Winner’s Cup. Coincidentally, Astra recorded their first league win of the season last weekend against bottom side Poli Timisoara.

Until 2012 Astra Giurgiu were known as Astra Ploiesta until the club was moved 130km to the south by the current owner despite long running protests from Barry Hearn. This would be the equivalent of Reading moving to Southend and a far greater upheaval than our recent relocation from Upton Park to Stratford. The move heralded Astra’s first ever Romanian championship victory.

“We have a big job to do against the Romanian champions. I know there are many players from last year and a lot of international players. For me they played a good game against Copenhagen at home and I know how good the teams from Romania can be.”

– Super Slav

Despite the game sandwiched between our tame defeat at Chelsea and the opening home fixture with Bournemouth it is expected that the Hammers will field a strong side in order to secure Europa League group stage qualification. It seems that Ayew is now out for an extended period and joins Lanzini, Cresswell and Sakho on the recuperation ward. Under The Hammers sources (i.e. we read it on the internet) suggest that Payet and Nordvelt have not travelled with the squad but that new boy Callieri managed to grab a spare seat on the plane. Arthur Masuaku is not yet eligible but no news, as yet, on the whereabouts of Sofiane Feghouli.

How we line up will be awaited with interest particularly the thorny full-back situation with Byram being our only available specialist in that position. I searched to Google to see if there was any possible academy replacement but all I got was “Page Not Found” (or at least out on loan along with Hendrie). Involvement from at least one of the Reeces tonight would be very welcome along with a role for the unfortunate Antonio as a midfield attacking threat.

“The decisions were scandalous and disgraceful. The errors of Artur Dias did not happen due to dishonesty. He needs to leave refereeing or ask to be excused from our games.”

– Porto President Pinto da Costa on tonight’s referee.

The man in the middle tonight is Artur Dias of Portugal who was once described by Porto’s President as scandalous and disgraceful following his performance in a Benfica – Porto derby game. We managed to avoid a repeat of last year’s red-card-fest in the previous round so fingers crossed that discipline is maintained.

My prediction for what it is worth is that our Romanian duck will endure with a scoreless or low scoring draw.

Match Preview: West Ham v Astra Giurgiu

What’s in store in Romania for West Ham’s European adventure?

west ham v astra 2015Last year our brief foray into Europe ended in the third qualifying round at the hands of Astra Giurgiu of Romania when they beat us 4-3 on aggregate. We held a comfortable 2-0 lead in the first leg when it all went wrong and they pulled back to 2-2. We put out a weakened team in the return leg as we were due to begin the Premier League season away at Arsenal just three days later.

We meet them again this season in the play-off round this time. If we can get past them over two legs then we will be into the league group stage with six guaranteed matches on Thursdays before the end of the year. This will have quite an impact on our league games and it will be interesting to see if we have the squad to cope if it happens.

The Premier League television requirements were not particularly kind to us with our opening league game last Monday evening at Chelsea, followed by this game on Thursday evening, and then we face Bournemouth in our opening home league game next Sunday.

Three games in a seven day period including a trip to Romania will be tough. Added to this is the return with the Romanians a week after the first leg then a daunting away trip to Manchester City on the next Sunday, and there is a real challenge for the team / squad at the beginning of the season.

“We should beat them over two legs quite comfortably to gain revenge for last season’s elimination and move into the group stage.”

Our opponents don’t come into the game in the best of form (a bit like ourselves I guess). Their league season began on 23 July when they suffered a 4-1 home defeat to the current unbeaten league leaders Dinamo Bucharest. A week later they drew 0-0 away from home, and then suffered their second home defeat 2-1 on 6 August. Last weekend they recorded their first league win of the season beating the bottom club who haven’t picked up a single point this season 3-1. Two of their three goals in this game came from the penalty spot, so perhaps they are as adept at “earning” penalties as Leicester!

Astra, the southernmost team in the country, were the Romanian champions last season (they finished first in the regular season and also following the championship round played by the top clubs) and qualified for the third qualifying round of the Champions League as a result, but were eliminated by FC Copenhagen. After drawing 1-1 at home in the first leg they were soundly beaten 3-0 in Denmark, and as a result stepped down to play in the Europa League. They have a tiny stadium holding just 8,500.

Steaua Bucharest (much larger stadium capacity 55,000), the reigning champions from the previous season, finished as runners-up to Astra in last season’s Romanian League. They are currently in second place in this season’s competition, five points clear of Astra after just four games. On that basis then form-wise they are currently a better team than our opponents.  Despite finishing fifth in the last regular season they moved up to second place after the championship round. As a result they, too, qualified for the third qualifying round of the Champions League but they performed better than Astra beating Sparta Prague over two legs. They progressed to meet Manchester City in the first play-off round on Tuesday. City thrashed them 5-0 in Romania despite missing two penalties.

We should beat them over two legs quite comfortably to gain revenge for last season’s elimination and move into the group stage. But we are West Ham. Who knows?