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!