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?

Chelsea 2:1 West Ham

Pouring through the debris of the season opener. A blunt attack, lack of ambition and more weak refereeing.

Costa ThuggeryWhen we elect a government to run the country we have accept that they will make decisions on our behalf. We can of course voice our disapproval but we have to wait until the next election before we can influence any changes (unless of course there is a referendum on a particular matter!). Football managers are not elected by supporters but I have a feeling that when Big Sam’s contract was not renewed, if there had been an election at the time then Slaven Bilic would have had a large majority. And in his first term of office he guided us to a very respectable seventh place in the Premier League, narrowly missing out on (some would say we were robbed of) a place in the Champions League, with a style of football that the majority approved of.

So we move into the second season and get through comfortably into the play-off round of the Europa League and then have to visit Stamford Bridge for the opening league game. I looked at Twitter about an hour before the kick off to see the players that had been selected, and was horrified to read the meltdown taking place by various individuals and West Ham groups before a ball had been kicked. The language was about as bad as it can get, the main attacks being on the manager’s team selection. Apart from all the words used to describe Bilic personally, the emphasis was on Antonio being picked at right back, Ogbonna being left out, the selection of Reid, Valencia (another subjected to vicious personal attacks), and Payet being left on the bench. Almost unanimously there was a call for Byram, Ogbonna and Payet to start and Antonio to play instead of Valencia in attack.

“It was therefore a complete surprise against the run of play when Collins scored with a superb shot, only his ninth career goal, but his fourth against Chelsea!”

Our supporters at the game were singing the Super Slaven Bilic song after about a quarter of an hour so were they taking an alternative view to the tweeters? We started promisingly for about ten minutes and then Chelsea gradually began to take over. Ayew had not really got into the game when he was injured on the half hour and Tore came on to replace him. Our defence were quite comfortable in the first half but we were unable to achieve anything in an attacking sense.

It all changed 50 seconds into the second half when Antonio got caught out of position and gave away a penalty. He was substituted, and the tweeters were happy that the point they had been making about Bilic’s insistence to play him at right back had been proved. Byram provided better cover from a defensive viewpoint. Although I am not a fan of most statistics in games, the Sky caption on 70 minutes that revealed shots on goal to be 14-1 in Chelsea’s favour was very telling.

It was therefore a complete surprise against the run of play when Collins scored with a superb shot, only his ninth career goal, but his fourth against Chelsea! Ah, that’s why he was picked! It was our first shot on target and came after 77 minutes. It would have been a most undeserved draw, and West Ham managed to do what they often do, conceding an 89 th minute goal. But Costa should not have been on the pitch when he netted the winner. He had already been booked when he raked his studs down Adrian’s leg, and should have perhaps had a straight red for that alone.

I take no pleasure in predicting a 2-1 defeat prior to the game. In truth I was expecting both sides to be better than they were. From a defensive viewpoint, when Byram was introduced we looked sound, although the distribution when we had the ball at the back was often poor.

“Let’s hope we learn some lessons from this match and put on a decent performance in Romania on Thursday.”

Only Kouyate of the midfield trio had a decent game in my opinion, but up front we were totally lacking in ideas. Carroll and Valencia didn’t have particularly good games although they were poorly served, and Tore looked like he was a complete stranger to the game.

What a disappointing opening! I had a quick look at Twitter before retiring to bed. It was once more in meltdown. The “told you so” brigade were once again in full force using the foulest language imaginable, hiding behind the anonymity provided by the internet. Yes, it was a poor performance. Yes, even the manager, with the benefit of hindsight, might have selected a different team.

This is my 59th season of supporting the team. This is what West Ham are all about. You never know what you are going to get from one game to the next. Let’s hope we learn some lessons from this match and put on a decent performance in Romania on Thursday.

And So It Begins…..

Pre-match tension builds for West Ham’s season curtain raiser.

Away at ChelseaExcitement and anticipation have been left simmering away that little bit longer for us this season as we feature in the last of the opening weekend fixtures away at Stamford Bridge.

With squads going through major Dr Who style re-generation every year it is difficult to know what your team (and the opposition) will look like as the real business of the day gets going.

According to the Whoscored analysis of our style of play from 2015/16 we are very strong at free kicks, set pieces and coming from behind; strong at creating chances, finishing, working long shot opportunities and aerial duels; but weak at defending against long shots, defending against skillful players and individual errors.  Our stats show lots of crosses, lots of shots,  and tendency to attack through the middle and be the victims of aggressive opponents (the 3rd most fouled team last season).  How will adding a handful of extra wingers to the squad affect this I wonder?

“The match will be very tough. We face a strong team. They have a good manager, a squad with physical, fast, talented players.”

– This Year’s Chelsea Manager

Chelsea who have a new manager and have added a few more £30 million pound players to their squad in Batshuayi and Kante will be looking for an improvement over last year’s effort free from any midweek European distraction.  Let’s hope they do no hit the ground running.

Head to Head History

Our record against Chelsea is reasonably even-stevens with Chelsea recording just one more victory than ourselves.  Given that we have won only 2 out of 21 since the asylum seeking roubles washed up in west London it is clear that historically we have held the upper hand.

P W D L F A Sequence
Home 48 25 9 14 85 65 DLWLLW
Away 49 12 13 24 64 88 LLLDLD
Total 97 37 22 38 149 153

After having been cheated out of victory at the Bridge last March we have to look back to September 2002 for our last success at their quaint, little stadium; a victory masterminded by G Roeder Esq and executed by P Di Canio.

Team News

It is difficult to speculate how we might line-up for this game.  There is speculation that neither Payet nor Masuaku are match fit and may only be on the bench.  The PhysioRoom website is still showing 9 players sidelined for us; in addition to the longer term absences of Cresswell, Lanzini, Tore and Sakho they also list Kouyate and Obiang as potential absentees.  It will be a big loss if Kouyate is not fit in my opinion and the combination of Antonio and Byram as right and left backs respectively is not filling me with confidence.

“Antonio Conte is a great manager and wants to change the way they approach the game and the principles. I rate him very highly. I am sure he will do a good job there. But we beat the big teams away last season and it was a good experience for us.  We will see how we are going to start on Monday night. We have Plan A and Plan B.”

– Super Slav

Chelsea report injuries to Terry and Zouma.  Surprisingly, Terry has a head injury as you might think there is nothing up there to damage.

Tonight’s Referee

Tonight’s referee is Anthony Taylor from Greater Manchester.  Taylor officiated 4 West Ham matches last term resulting in defeats to Leicester [H] (where he sent off Adrian) and Watford [A] and victories against Newcastle [H] and Everton [A].

West Ham v Chelsea – Monday 15 August

A look forward to Monday night’s opener against Chelsea.

Last season the fixtures computer gave us one of the hardest possible opening fixtures, away at Arsenal. We rose to the challenge with a 2-0 victory, so the computer decided that we could comfortably cope with a tough away game, and gave us another one this year at Chelsea. Despite their poor showing last season they should not be underestimated – the bookmakers make them third favourites to regain the title (remember they were champions the season before last) behind the two Manchester clubs.

andy carroll versus chelseaOf course we beat them last season at Upton Park with a goal from Zarate and a superb winning header from Carroll. But perhaps the game is best remembered for Mourinho being sent off, and the pictures in the following morning papers as he cut a sad figure watching the game from the back of the directors’ box. We were also mightily unlucky in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge when we were robbed, as so frequently happened in the latter stages of the season, by the incompetence of the officials (in this case Mr. Madley). Chelsea’s two goals which earned them a draw were dubious to say the least. For the first the referee made our wall retreat twelve yards allowing Fabregas to score more easily from a free kick, and for the second he gave a penalty when Loftus-Cheek tripped himself up just outside our penalty area. Two scandalous decisions but it is all water under the Bridge now.

I can remember three occasions when we have played Chelsea in the opening league fixture. The first was in our cup winning season of 1963-64 when we drew 0-0 away. I was nine years old at the time and on holiday with my parents and sister in a caravan at the Martello Camp in Walton on the Naze. I didn’t find out the result until the next morning when my dad bought the Sunday paper.

Moore, Hurst and PetersAlmost 50 years ago to the day I was at Upton Park for the first game of the 1966-67 season just three weeks after England had won the World Cup. Moore, Hurst and Peters ran on to the pitch alone before the start of the game to receive the acclaim of the West Ham crowd of over 36,000. Unfortunately, despite a goal from Budgie Byrne, we lost that opening game 2-1.

Recently I have been re-reading Robert Banks’ excellent trilogy of books, An Irrational Hatred of Luton, West Ham Till I Die, and The Legacy of Barry Green. In the third book he recounts the first fixture of the 2000-2001 season when we lost 4-2 at Stamford Bridge, with our goals coming from Di Canio and Kanoute. The part I particularly remember is him describing the hot day, a large number in the crowd removing their shirts to resemble the beach at Blackpool, but saying that the donkeys were on the pitch. I seem to recall he was quite scathing about our performance.

There may well have been other first day games against Chelsea but these are the only three that I remember. So what will happen this time? They have a new manager, one of a dozen or more top flight bosses who were not Premier League managers on the opening day of last season. A former Italian international footballer and manager, he has impeccable club footballing management credentials having led Juventus to three consecutive titles from 2011-2014.

Perhaps 2-2 to match the result at Stamford Bridge last season? That would be a good result, although I have a feeling that we might just lose to the odd goal in three. I hope that I’m wrong.

Most Premier League teams play high profile friendly matches before the start of the league season and Chelsea are no exception. In some ways the results are meaningless as players are getting match fit before the real season gets underway. Nevertheless in the last fortnight or so they have lost narrowly to Real Madrid (as we did against Juventus), but they have also recorded impressive victories over Liverpool, AC Milan, and Werder Bremen.

It is a tough opening. Who knows if it is a good or bad time to be playing such a difficult fixture? I hope for a win of course as I always do, realistically I will be pleased if we draw the game, but I won’t be too disheartened if the result does go against us if we put up a decent performance. Perhaps 2-2 to match the result at Stamford Bridge last season? That would be a good result, although I have a feeling that we might just lose to the odd goal in three. I hope that I’m wrong.

A draw would be a good result there. Remember our “19th Century Football 0-0 draw” there in 2013-4 that annoyed Mr. Mourinho so much. It gave us the impetus to go on and win the next four consecutive games. And what are the chances of us repeating the result at Stamford Bridge of just over 30 years ago in March 1986? For those of you too young to remember Tony Cottee scored twice, Frank McAvennie and Alan Devonshire scored one apiece, as we thrashed them 4-0 on our way to our highest ever (third place) finish in the top division.