Dreaming Of A Second Successive Semi As West Ham Look To Slip Gently Past Belgian Challenge

The London Stadium mood was given a huge boost at the weekend. Was it a one-off or the sign of things to come? The first test for the new positivity is the opportunity for West Ham to ease past Gent and into the Europa Conference semi-finals.

At ten minutes past two on Sunday afternoon the worst prophecies of calamitous doom looked as if they would all be coming to fruition. This was going to be a rout against a rampant Arsenal side that would obliterate the Hammers relatively respectable goal difference advantage and leave them teetering despondently on the edge of relegation abyss.

Miraculously, something changed. Perhaps it involved a hint of complacency from the visitors but suddenly, West Ham were pressing higher up the pitch, the full-backs got to grips with the danger from the flanks, the composure of the Arsenal midfield was rattled, and space was intelligently exploited behind the high line of the Gunner’s defence.     

Anguish was replaced with anticipation and action and the type of spirited comeback where a deserved draw ends up feeling much more like victory. As satisfying as the performance was, it naturally raised questions as to where the spirit and intensity on show had been hiding all season. How had timid and cautious transformed into dynamic and confident? We had briefly seen an equivalent spirit and intensity when entertaining Tottenham in August but otherwise it has been distinctly absent. Is it a feature reserved solely for one-off London derby occasions? And will the penny finally drop that if you give the crowd something to shout about, then the London Stadium atmosphere can be as electric as you want?

The point earned was a welcome boost in the relegation struggle but has to be followed up in the remaining fixtures with equally positive displays. There is still plenty of opportunity to win and lose points and no chickens can yet be counted. It will be revealing to see how much of the new found adventure is taken to the game at Bournemouth when hostilities resume at the weekend.

In the meantime, there is the matter of a European Conference quarter final second leg with Gent to be played against the backdrop of increasing speculation on the future of David Moyes as West Ham manager. With so much online football ‘news’ tending towards fantasy it is impossible to sort the believable from what we would like to believe. But stories about gentlemen’s agreements and new managerial targets are starting to become commonplace, even in more mainstream outlets. The latest names thrown into the ring being Arne Slot of Feyenoord and Paulo Fonseca of Lille.

What any agreement between Moyes and the club to part ways in the summer would mean for the rest of this season is intriguing. Winning the Europa Conference would be a welcome addition to the threadbare Honours section of the manager’s CV. Is that sufficient motivation for the Scot to throw caution to the wind and risk the level of bravery that is often required to win knock-out competitions.

In theory, the Hammers should be red-hot favourites to reach the final. The draw has been kindly to the Hammers. Neither Gent, Anderlecht or AZ Alkmaar should prove insurmountable stumbling blocks on the march to Prague. But as we know from West Ham’s extensive back catalogue of banana skins, these matches frequently don’t go to plan. Nothing can be taken for granted!

Most observers agreed West Ham were fortunate to come away from the first leg on level pegging. An ultra cautious team selection surrendered all the initiative to the attack minded Belgian side who showed plenty of spirt but (fortunately) little real quality with the possession they were gifted. Surely the approach today will be nowhere near as negative and that all concerned will be going flat out to win the tie in normal time.

Angelo Ogbonna sits out the game through suspension while Gianluca Scamacca is now a long-term injury absentee. Nayef Aguerd should be available for selection after missing the weekend action and may well partner Kurt Zouma in the centre of defence. Surely tonight would be the ideal time to give Maxwell Cornet a starting position in what I’m hoping will be as strong a team as possible: Areola, Kehrer, Zouma, Aguerd, Emerson, Rice, Downes, Paqueta, Bowen, Ings, Cornet

There is a worry that too much is being read into the performance against Arsenal. It has certainly lifted the mood for now, but we need to see more evidence before we can call it a turnaround. A good start would be the Hammers demonstrating their intent with an efficient and positive victory to seal next month’s semi-final berth. COYI!

Time Ghentlemen Please: Can West Ham’s Season Be Saved By A First Silverware in 43 Years?

A tricky hop across the Channel to Belgium is the latest destination in the Hammer’s two year European adventure. Can they free themselves from relegation anxiety to post a healthy first leg lead?

The West Ham European adventure rumbles into Belgium tonight for a fixture in the city where it had all began almost 59 years ago.

In September 1964, KAA Gent were known by the French name of La Gantoise when they were drawn against the Hammers in the 1st round of the European Cup Winners Cup. The first leg match played at the now defunct Stade Jules Otten was shaded by the visitors with Ron Boyce scoring the only goal of the game. A scrappy 1-1 draw at Upton Park – Byrne replying after a Peters’ own goal – was enough to set West Ham on the road to a second Wembley final success in two years.

It was easy to imagine back then that silverware might be a regular visitor to the Upton Park trophy room. The club was on the rise, great things were expected and the danger was we would end up with open-top bus parade fatigue before too long. But then reality stepped in and we have had to make do with just two FA Cup wins in the intervening years.

West Ham’s form in the European Conference has been the polar opposite of that served up in league matches. An exemplary record ten wins from ten games played. And a tally of 25 goals that is just two short of the 27 scored in 29 Premier League fixtures. To a large extent this is a reflection of the quality of opposition being faced, but games still need to be won and it has been largely achieved through the efforts of a fringe group of players.

Whether the Euro campaign has impacted domestic performances in any positive or negative sense this season is open to speculation. There have been enough enforced breaks in a stop/ start campaign and sufficient squad rotation to avoid the excesses of fatigue and injury, although shortened preparation time for league games might be seen as an issue.

The same argument is true for the consequences of continued participation between now and the end of May . I would hope fellow supporters starved of silverware for 43 years would be desperate to go all the way to Prague in this competition. But equally, the majority would be distraught at losing our Premier League status. It shouldn’t be a choice of sacrificing one for the other and it would be unforgivable (admittedly in a long line of unforgivable actions) not to take the Euro games seriously.

The narrowest of Premier League breathing spaces was accomplished after plundering three points from Craven Cottage last Saturday. Fulham were the most accommodating of hosts, not only scoring on our behalf but also declining to make much in the way of serious attempts to score at the correct end of the pitch. If there is a dream opponent for David Moyes it would be one who spend the entire afternoon pinging in hopeful balls for a player who is serving an eight-match suspension in the stands. The Moyes defensive playbook is relatively sound when it comes to the art of heading the ball away. It is being attacked direct and at speed where it is full of holes.

We must now hope that Fulham rediscover their mojo before facing Leeds, Leicester, Everton, and Southampton in the other basement battles they are involved in. But the absence of Mitrovic leaves them with little in the way of threat and little left to play for.

Tonight’s opponents, Gent, originally qualified as Belgian cup-winners for the Europa League play-off round where they were soundly defeated 4-0 on aggregate by Omonia of Cyprus. Dropping down into the Conference League Group F, they finished as runners-up to Djurgårdens IF of Sweden. Gent then went on to beat Qarabağ FK of Azerbaijan in the Knockout round and Başakşehir of Turkey to reach the Quarter Finals. The 4-1 second leg win in Istanbul featured the fastest ever hattrick in UEFA club competition scored by Gent’s 20-year-old Nigerian striker Gift Orban. West Ham defenders have a long standing familiarity with gifts but hopefully used up their quota in the recent Premier League thrashing by Newcastle.

The Gent team are enigmatically known to supporters as the ‘The Buffalo’s’ and sport the image of a Native American chief as the club’s logo. Apparently, this is a throwback to a visit to Belgium by Buffalo Bill’s circus at the turn of the 20th century. With circuses and clowns never more appropriate in the stewardship of West Ham – and current leader, Chief Talking Bull – we should feel very much at home.

An advantage that West Ham have when playing in Europe is that opponents are dazzled by the aura associated with teams from the Premier League. Unless opponents have done a detailed level of homework, they will imagine a team of internationals weaving intricate and elegant patterns across the football pitch that are interrupted by sudden and clinical bursts of power and precision that leave them reeling. Little do they know that our style employs all the tactical sophistication and finesse of a mid-table Sunday league outfit.

Gent are riding high in 4th place in the Belgian Pro League with just two games remaining in the regular season – it then splits out into complicated play-off groups that determine next season’s European participation. This tie will be no walk in the park for the Hammers even though they will be considered as firm favourites to progress. In the context of the Premier League relegation battle it would be good to get the tie sewn up in the first leg, but that is easier said than done when a team is schooled to shut up shop at a goal up.

I expect Moyes again to rely on midweek stalwarts including Alphonse Areola, Ben Johnson, Thilo Kehrer, Manuel Lanzini, Flynn Downes, and Pablo Fornals as the core of tonight’s team. Will it be enough? Who knows? I’ve still got my eye on that silverware though. COYI!