How many games have we played in the Europa Conference League this season? 13. Unlucky for some as the saying goes but not for West Ham. We’ve won 12 of them and drawn one. If we can maintain the unbeaten record next Thursday when we visit the city of Alkmaar in the Netherlands then we can get ready for our first European final since 1976. I think we can do it. It could go either way though.
I thought that we were OK on Thursday night. The players seemed nervous to me (or was it Moyes-induced caution?) in the early stages but once AZ had taken the lead with that long range shot it got better. I think if Areola were to face that identical shot again then on almost every occasion he would save it. Everyone is quick to get on his back and I’ve seen many calls for Fabianski to be recalled for the return leg. Not for me. In my opinion Areola is a better keeper and should retain his place and get a consistent run in the league games too. But I know many will disagree with my opinion. It’s strange isn’t it how keepers are rotated by most managers in league and cups to give the perceived number 2 game time? When a team reaches a final or perhaps a semi-final the manager will often revert to choosing his favoured number 1 keeper. I wonder if our manager will do the same for the second leg in view of Areola’s error? It would be harsh and wrong in my view. When he was England manager Ron Greenwood used to rotate Shilton and Clemence as he couldn’t decide who was the better keeper. It’s a shame that Phil Parkes was around at the same time as those two. I reckon he was just as good.
I’m also a big fan of Said Benrahma too. Not everybody’s cup of tea but he would always be in my starting eleven. That’s not to say I don’t find him frustrating at times though. I believe he has the potential to be a better player than we have seen in West Ham colours. I’m not sure the manager likes him particularly; I’m sure he would love to play Fornals in that position more – he’s more of a Moyes-type player. Again, not for me. He gives the ball away too much for my liking without posing much of a threat in an attacking sense. True Benrahma does lose the ball at times but he is always looking to create chances for himself and others. He was my man of the match on Thursday. I had no doubts when he stepped up to take the pressure penalty either. The successful conversion of that spot kick meant his penalty taking record for the clubs he has played for is now 12 out of 12. He doesn’t miss. I liked the way he combined with (the improving) Paqueta. Perhaps they can begin to reproduce the link that was formed between Payet and Lanzini in 2015-16?
Today is a different matter when we visit the GTech Community Stadium. What is it with teams beginning with Br? We can’t seem to play well against Brighton or Brentford. Perhaps we are fortunate that we haven’t had to play Brondby, Braga, or Bruges in Europe this season? When Brentford visited the London Stadium in the final game of 2022 we had not won a league game since 24 October when we beat Bournemouth 2-0, though of course the season was interrupted by the World Cup. We had played very winnable games at home against Palace and Leicester but had lost both of them. The 2-0 loss to Brentford made it three home league defeats in a row. Following the win over Bournemouth in October we were actually in the top half of the table (well just that is in 10th). By the time Brentford had beaten us we had fallen to 17th, just outside the bottom three, and with just one point from the next two games we were actually in the relegation zone. We’ve hovered around there ever since, usually just above, and visited there again following defeat at Tottenham.
We’ve done enough since (without being totally convincing for much of the time) to ensure that we are safe. Ok not mathematically yet, but it would take an extraordinary set of results to see us go down. At the start of the season who would have believed that we would not be mathematically safe from relegation in the middle of May with just three games of the league season to go? Of course Southampton are now down and it would take a massive goal difference swing for Leeds to go past us now, but the others in contention could all in theory still overtake us. But looking at their fixtures it is highly unlikely.
Geoff made a good point in his article published yesterday about how we only took two points from our remaining eight league games in the 1975-76 season when we reached the European Cup Winners Cup Final. I’ll expand on that and say that in that season we made possibly the most dramatic fall in league position in the top flight that has ever been seen. We beat Ararat Erevan of the USSR in the second leg of the second round on November 5th and then we drew 1-1 with Coventry the following Saturday to go to the top of the league. By Christmas we had fallen to sixth place, and after then we only won one more league game in the whole of the rest of the season (a 1-0 win over QPR on 24 January). Incredibly just one win in 21 league games plus an early exit in the FA Cup in the third round, eventually finishing 18th! (22 teams in the top division at that time). Despite that we had excellent comeback performances in the quarter final and semi-final rounds in Europe to reach the final where we lost 4-2 to Anderlecht.
Can we blame our indifferent league performance on our involvement in European competition this season? I don’t think so but in the Premier League we have won 10 of our 35 games for a win rate of 29%, whereas in Europe we have won 12 out of 13 and drawn the other one for a win rate of 92%. Very different quality of competition of course.
There is now a lot of merit money on offer based on final league positions. We are currently 15th which would earn a payout of £13.2 million if that was our final position in the Premier League. But that would increase or decrease by £2.2 million for each step either up or down. Prize money is important in the Premier League and also the European Conference. We have already won over £10 million for our performances in Europe so far and another £5 million will be added if we get to and win the final (runners-up get £3 million). But there is also the added bonus that winning would give entry into the Europa League next season and the financial rewards on offer in that. Whilst the money is important, as a fan I’d just love to see us win a trophy. It has been a long time! Too long!
I expect to see quite a few changes to our starting line up for the game today even though we are not yet mathematically safe with perhaps Fabianski, Johnson, Emerson, Downes, Fornals and Ings and possibly one or two others starting the game. Brentford still have a very remote outside chance of qualifying for Europe next season despite only winning two of their last nine games which means that they are very unlikely to do so. They will be fully up for the game though. But will we?