Resilient Hammers Set To Consolidate Europa Group Top Spot Against Erratic Genk

A third consecutive Europa League victory will put West Ham firmly in charge of the group and on course for early qualification to the round of sixteen in March

A return to Europa League action for West Ham tonight as they face Racing Gent in their third round of six Group H games.  With two wins already in the bag (against a Dinamo and a Rapid) another victory would effectively ensure European involvement extending Christmas. Even if a further win or two may be required to secure the all-important top spot.

If it wasn’t for the success of their football club, I doubt many of us would have ever heard of Genk. How educational following football can be! They have become one of the dominant clubs in Belgian football in recent years, winning four championship titles and lifting the cup five times. They have been regular participants in European competition since the late 1990s and have qualified for the Champions League group stage on three occasions, most recently in 2019/20.

In 2020/21, Genk finished fourth in the regular season but had climbed their way up to second place by the end of the convoluted playoff round. Their reward was entry into the third qualifying round of the Champions League, where they were beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk – and dropped down into the Europa League draw.

The game against Genk will be the third time West Ham have faced Belgian opposition have faced in European competition. The Hammers very first European tie in the 1964/65 ECWC campaign was against Gent (then known by their French name, La Gantoise), which they won 2-1 on aggregate. The second encounter though led to a less successful outcome when Anderlecht defeated West Ham 4-2 in the final of the same competition at the Heysel Stadium in May 1975.

West Ham go into the game in good spirits following an excellent showing at Goodison Park on Sunday. But they will also have one eye on the visit of the Harry Kane eleven at the weekend. As with previous rounds, resources will need to be managed carefully to navigate tonight’s tie while keeping as many of the regulars as possible fit and fresh for Sunday’s blockbuster.

The Hammers squad has a more robust look to it these days. There is greater depth and when we have seen players coming in, they have looked very well drilled as to what the system demands of them. However, with probable absences due to injury and infections, the potential for rotation may not be as great as before.

The main pressure points are well known: striker and left back. West Ham are not the same team when missing the physical strength of Michail Antonio as the arrowhead in attack. It is not just his goals that are important – his presence is pivotal to much of the transition from defence to attack. If he is not risked tonight the attacking threat will be much diminished without an obvious replacement.

 Aaron Cresswell has played every match this season apart from the League Cup tie at Old Trafford. The squad has no specialist left back replacement to give him a break. While Ben Johnson can move across as emergency cover, subject to the fitness of Vladimir Coufal and Ryan Fredericks, it is not his best position. Arthur Masuaku is a possibility as left wing back – I doubt that David Moyes will elect to change formation for this one – but gets too distracted when defending.

Elsewhere, there will be likely Europa recalls for Alphonse Areola, Craig Dawson, Issa Diop, Manuel Lanzini and Nikola Vlasic. Plus, Mark Noble may replace Tomas Soucek in central midfield if his injury situation allows.

Genk have lost each of their last three games and have slipped to midtable in the Belgian League. While they won their Europa League opener in Vienna, they subsequently lost heavily at home to Zagreb.

One player likely to standout for Genk is 6ft 7in Nigerian striker, Paul Onuachu, one of the many strikers linked to the Hammers during the transfer window. Will be interested to see how he does. They also feature an Englishman in Ike Ugbo, a former Chelsea youth teammate of Declan Rice who moved to Belgium in search of regular football in the summer..

Genk appear to get through almost as many managers as Watford. The current incumbent is John van den Brom from the Netherlands who joined in November 2020. The managerial alumni includes Alex McLeish (for one disappointing season in 2014/5) who was once courted for (but turned down) the West Ham hotseat following the departure of Harry Redknapp.

On paper, this looks a relatively straightforward assignment for West Ham. But no game can be taken lightly – or taken for granted. Genk typically score in most of their games, even when they lose, and concentration will be required to keep that Europa league clean sheet intact. It will be an important game to win and victory here, and in the return leg in a fortnight’s time, should be enough seal top spot in the group.

Another 2-0 home win for the Hammers. COYI!      

The Cinderella Derby: West Ham Travel To Everton In Search Of The Magic Touch

Two teams whose big dreams are mostly overshadowed by more illustrious and uglier neighbours lock horns at Goodison Park on Sunday afternoon. Who will get to the ball?

There is a sense affinity between the stories of West Ham and Everton. How their hopes and dreams are largely thwarted by their relative places in the scheme of things. The fourth biggest club in London and the fourth biggest club in the North-West – at least as far as revenues are concerned. No doubt, Everton have enjoyed the greater share of success, but all that was back in the olden days, before the big money started to talk.

In more recent history, both clubs have stumbled along a path of vanity, making poor value signings where glamour and reputation are mistaken for talent and application. The Hammers have abandoned haphazard approach since the second coming of David Moyes and it seems that Everton hope to do the same, through the pragmatic management of Rafa Benitez. Two teams where collective effort and organisation take priority over individual flair.

Any aspirations that either club might be the one to break the top six monopoly on a regular basis received a massive blow last week with the sale of Newcastle United to Saudi Arabia. If hopes were up that a fairer, better regulated sport would rise the ashes of the European Super League fiasco, they were firmly dispelled with the surprise Premier League decision to ratify the Newcastle deal.

It may take the Toon a number of years to transform into a major force, but a bottomless supply of dodgy money and expensive lawyers will eventually overcome whatever passes for the regulatory obstacle of financial fair play. Not that the Saudis are any more inappropriate as owners than those already in place at Manchester City or Chelsea but it is one more step in stripping away the soul out of the English game – unless you are a Newcastle supporter, I suppose.

Benitez is probably kicking himself now for taking the job at Goodison when he would have been in pole position for a return to St James’ Park under the new regime. Instead of planning how to spend the loot he has to worry about facing West Ham with a patched-up team.

The Hammer’s express start to the new start has lost steam in recent weeks, although they remain unbeaten on the road. The defeat at home to Brentford was particularly disappointing. It is tempting to blame the fatigue of a Europa League campaign, but we are only two games in, and there has been ample opportunity to rotate the squad against indifferent opponents.

The slow start against the Bees was unfathomable and both Kurt Zouma and Angelo Ogbonna (neither of who had played the previous Thursday) looked as though they had lead in their boots. Having dragged themselves back into the game with a much improved second half performance (against it has to be said a highly cynical opposition) a home win looked to be on the cards. Ultimately losing to the last kick of the game following a needless free-kick conceded by Ogbonna was immensely distressing.

It is not clear at time of writing whether David Moyes will need to make any enforced changes with some speculation over the fitness of Vladimir Coufal and Michail Antonio. I would think any discretionary switches to the starting line-up are unlikely given the manager’s track record, although cases could be made for the return of Craig Dawson and for Alphonse Areola to replace Lukasz Fabianski – following the Poles two assists last time out.

In theory, it should be a good time to play Everton if reports that both Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison are unavailable are true. Rondon despite good approach work is hardly prolific, leaving goal-of-the-month expert Townsend as the major threat. The game could well turn out to be a cagey tactical battle. Benitez will know that West Ham’s strength is the quick counter-attack and with his main strikers absent may be prepared to sit back and force the Hammers to ask the questions. Unpicking packed defences is not our strong point and the best hope might be to regain the crown as the league’s set piece kings.

A hard fought game. West Ham to win 2-1 with Tomas Soucek back on the scoresheet, just as he was last season. COYI!  

Can West Ham make it three wins from the last four Premier League visits to Goodison Park?

Once again the Premier League resumes after the second halt for an international break. I dislike the stuttered start to a season brought about by these interruptions, but for those of you who enjoy seeing England play these World Cup qualifiers you won’t have long to wait for the next ones as after just four more games the campaign will once again be held up by another stoppage.

Anyway, on Sunday we visit Goodison Park for our eighth Premier League game. Our promising start has faltered a little, and it was disappointing to concede a 95th minute goal to lose our last game at the London Stadium to Brentford. At that point in the game it was only one point dropped, as it was in our last home game against Manchester United when failure to convert a 93rd minute penalty lost us another point. To counterbalance this of course, we ourselves scored a 95th minute winner at Leeds to gain two additional points in time added on, so the net result of the extra time played in our last three games is zero; two points gained and two points lost.

So we are where we deserve to be perhaps with eleven points from seven games and a positive goal difference of +4 to be sitting in ninth place in this early table. Everton are fifth just three points above us. If we can beat them then we will move above them. But previous visits to Merseyside have shown that this won’t be easy.

The Toffeemen have begun the season well under new manager Benitez. They have only lost once, but their four wins haven’t been the most difficult fixtures – away at Brighton was quite impressive, but home victories over Burnley, Norwich and Southampton, three of the bottom four teams at this stage, were games they might have expected to win. Hopefully we will prove to be a much tougher proposition!  

Historically they have been a bit of a bogey side for us, and statistics show that they have won more games, and scored more goals against us than against any other team in the Premier League era. Having said that recent history has shown some improvement, and we have won on two of our last three league visits to Goodison Park.

At this point I’ll pose a teaser for you. Who was the last Englishman to score a goal for West Ham at Goodison Park in either the league or one of the cups? I’ll give you a clue – it was in March 2008 in a 1-1 draw. There were actually seven Englishmen in the starting eleven that day. Since then we have scored 15 goals there but none by someone from England. The names of those goalscorers to take you down memory lane over the last 13 years – Kovac, Da Costa, Ilan, Spector, Piquionne, Zarate, James Collins, Antonio (OK I’ll admit he could be classed as English and was at the time, but now he’s qualified for Jamaica), Sakho, Payet, Yarmolenko (2), Arnautovic, Snodgrass, and finally Soucek who scored the late winner last season on New Years’ Day.

I wonder if a player qualified for England can score for us at Everton on Sunday? Of course there are fewer to choose from these days. In the last game against Brentford there were just three in the starting line-up, Cresswell, Rice and Bowen, and another two (out of nine) on the ‘bench’ – Dawson and Johnson. Without research I suspect that there are some other teams with fewer than that though. How times have changed!

Regular readers of this blog will know that my West Ham memories stretch back to the late 1950s. I have been thinking back over all the years of games against Everton trying to recall some of the best ones. One of the most exciting and memorable evenings was the FA Cup tie at Upton Park in January 2015 when the game was tied 1-1 after 90 minutes. In extra time Lukaku scored his customary goal against us, before Carlton Cole was brought on as a substitute with about ten minutes of the 120 to go, and scored within a minute or so. 2-2 at full time and we were leading in the penalty shoot out after Everton missed one of their early penalties and Downing (with the fifth one) had the opportunity to win the game, but his penalty was saved by the Everton keeper Robles. Successive penalties were scored after that until it was the turn of the goalkeepers. Then Robles penalty hit the bar, leaving Adrian to step up. He memorably threw his gloves to the floor before striding forward to smash in the winner. 9-8 on penalties. What a game!

Another game I remember well (for a different reason) was a 2-2 draw in the 70s. I was standing on the North Bank when an Everton player called Ronnie Goodlass scored from about 50 yards (from a high bouncing ball) over the head of Mervyn Day – I was right behind it. I think that game ended 2-2 with Pop Robson scoring a couple for us.

And one of the best games I can recall, also at Upton Park was earlier in the seventies when we won the game 4-3. I think we had 10 Englishmen on the field that day, but two of our goals were scored by Clyde Best from Bermuda, who did score some cracking goals for us.

Looking at the bookmakers’ odds for the game on Sunday, Everton are narrow favourites at 6/4, we are around 15/8, with the draw at 23/10. My fun bet for this game is for West Ham to win 1-0 and the goal to be scored by Aaron Cresswell (an Englishman for a change!). The odds for this are 200/1. I can just picture a free kick about 25 yards out in the last few minutes, and Cresswell lifting it over the wall into the top corner. What are the chances? And by the way the answer to my teaser was Dean Ashton. What a super player he was before his career was cruelly cut short.

West Ham Will Be Buzzing: But Can They Bring The Bees To Their Knees?

The Hammers first meeting of the season with one of the newly promoted sides. The bees will surely be flying higher than either the hornets or canaries.

Today sees a first ever top tier clash between West Ham and Brentford, and the first in any competition since the 1992/93 season. Although the Bees had enjoyed one previous spell in the old First Division – a war interrupted run between 1935/ 36 and 1946/47 – the Hammers were languishing in midtable Division 2 obscurity at the time.  

Among many pundits pre-season favourites for the relegation places, Brentford have equipped themselves well so far. Showing the determination and resilience necessary to make a go of it in the Premier League, and following in Leeds footsteps as the season’s surprise package. Prior to last weekend they had conceded just two times, but it was their refusal to be overawed by Liverpool, and to come from behind twice in a 3-3 draw, that rightfully earned the plaudits.

For the Hammers, today is the second instalment of the Sunday after the Thursday before schedule that will run until Christmas. A routine victory against Rapid Vienna in the week left them sitting comfortably at the top of Group H. That it has been achieved with a largely second-string selection is a bonus and all the more satisfying. Considerably reducing the risk of fatigue and injury from having to play twice per week.

The Europa League game saw another man of the match performance from Declan Rice. What a top class player he has become. I will admit to being one of those who initially thought he could only ever make it as a centre back – how wrong was that? It is not only his commanding performances on the pitch that would be missed but also his obvious role in encouraging the superb team spirit that currently surrounds the club.  

It is unlikely there will be any surprises in the West Ham starting line-up for the game. The only uncertainty is at right back where both Vladimir Coufal and Ryan Fredericks may be unavailable. Fortunately, Ben Johnson can provide sound defensive cover, even if he still needs to offer more going forward. It was interesting to see that Brentford had targeted Alexander-Arnold as the weak link in Liverpool’s defence last week and I wonder if Thomas Frank sees any similar point of weakness in the Hammer’s backline. Both full-backs may need strong support from their respective midfield partners.

As last year’s set-piece kings, West Ham have carried much less of a threat this time around. One of the highlights in midweek was seeing Craig Dawson really attacking the ball at corner kicks. Dawson and Tomas Soucek were a handful for defences last season and corners were a productive source of goals. Kurt Zouma is the better defender than Dawson (and has a reasonable goal-scoring record of his own) but we have yet to see any aggression from him in the opposition box.

The Rice/ Soucek dynamic also looks in need of tweaking. The desire to get Rice forward more is understandable, particularly now he has started to weigh-in with a few important goals. But it does appear to have dampened Soucek’s party piece of arriving late in the box with purpose. There were signs of the old Soucek in the second half at Leeds and hopefully the manager and coaches are working on getting the right balance between the two.

A win today could move West Ham up to third or fourth place, depending on the scale of victory and what happens in the subsequent Liverpool-Manchester City clash. Not that victory is assured against a side who are as well organised and hard working as Brentford. Breaking down compact and organised defences is something we still seem to struggle with. Excellent counter-attacking has become a West ham core competency but that extra touch of magic to unlock packed defences remains elusive.

How Brentford approach the game will be fascinating. Last weekend’s barnstorming game with Liverpool was something of an anomaly for them, deviating from the cautious, disciplined style that had gone before and earned them three clean sheets – no doubt polycotton ones at a 50% saving in the Brentford Nylons great autumn sale, not arf!

Not knowing what to expect makes this game difficult to call. Surprisingly West Ham supporters have suddenly become accustomed to winning games, particularly at the London Stadium. But against an athletic, all-action opponent who don’t know when they are beaten, it will be a tough test.

In the past this fixture has thrown up some crazy score-lines including 7-4, 8-3 and 7-2. I’ve a feeling this one will be a tighter affair. I can see it being edge of the seats stuff right to the final whistle, with the Hammers finally winning out by the odd goal. COYI!   

A Rapid Turnaround as West Ham are back in Premier League action less than 72 hours after another Europa League win

The last time we faced Brentford in the Football League was in a second tier game (ironically called League Division One) in 1992-93. This was the very season when the Premier League came into existence, but we had missed out following relegation from the top flight (called Division One) in 1991-92. Yes that’s right we went from Division One to League Division One after dropping out of the top tier! I guess the naming was confusing at the time. It’s now much simpler of course with the second tier called the Championship.

Anyway, following a goalless draw at Griffin Park in December 1992 we won the return at Upton Park the following April by four goals to nil. Our goalscorers that day were Martin Allen, Peter Butler, Kevin Keen and Trevor Morley. It was the first of four winning games to end the season in second place and gain automatic promotion into the Premier League on goal difference.

Prior to the two fixtures in that season you have to go back to February 1954 for the last meeting between the sides when we lost 3-1 with our goal scored by Dave Sexton. Older readers may remember the name – Dave Sexton subsequently had a successful managerial career managing Chelsea, QPR, Manchester United and England Under 21s among others.

Coming up to date, Brentford have made an excellent start to life in the Premier League sitting in ninth place after two wins and three draws in their opening six games. Victories over Arsenal and Wolves and creditable draws against Palace, Villa and Liverpool with just a single goal defeat to high flying Brighton represent a good return for the team who were favourites at the beginning of the season to be relegated. One of the many interesting statistics I’ve read this week is that Brentford have only been trailing for a total of 25 minutes this season to date. Apparently that’s the fewest in the Premier League. Is there anything they don’t keep statistics for these days?

Our performance against Rapid Vienna on Thursday wasn’t spectacular but another professional showing to top Europa League Group H with the maximum six points from our two opening games. Defensively we have been particularly impressive, restricting our opponents to just one shot on target in the 90 minutes (and that was from some distance). Dinamo Zagreb had no shots on target against us if I remember correctly. Rice scored in both games and was perhaps man of the match against the Austrians, although I thought that Craig Dawson ran him close. By scoring in both games, Rice became the third West Ham player to score in his first two European appearances for the club – the others were Brian Dear in 1965, and David Cross in 1980.

In the other game in Group H, Dinamo Zagreb went to Belgium and comfortably beat Genk 3-0, so it would appear that our next two matches home and away against the Belgian side shouldn’t present us with too many problems, and we are well placed to top the group if we can keep us this form. And I don’t have any doubts that we can achieve this. Leicester on the other hand have just one point from two games in their group, leaving their European hopes hanging by a thread.

David Moyes continues to have a selection headache with so many players pushing for a place in the starting eleven. But just like his opposite number at Brentford, he has made the least changes to the starting line-up in Premier League games this season (just three).  My best guess this time is for the following unchanged line-up: Fabianski; Coufal (Johnson if Coufal not fit), Zouma, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Soucek; Fornals, Benrahma, Bowen; Antonio.

I’m not sure that any of the others have done enough (yet) to make them a shoe-in for the starting eleven, although I have a feeling that once Areola gets a run in the team he will keep his place. He looks a high class keeper to me. Dawson is very unlucky to be left out, but I feel that the extra pace of Zouma, and the combination with Ogbonna makes them the first choice pairing at centre back.

Given Brentford’s excellent start to the season, and the fact that we had a European game on Thursday night, I’m surprised that the bookmakers make us such overwhelming favourites to win the game. We are around 17/20 whereas Brentwood are quoted at about 18/5 to collect three points. This won’t be easy and I don’t believe there will be a lot in it. I’ll go for a 3-2 West Ham win (odds of 28/1) and for my fun bet this time I’ve gone for Antonio and Toney both to score, with Rice and Jansson both to be carded at 100/1. What are the chances?  

Rapid Strides: West Ham Ready To Set The Pace At The Top Of Group H

The Hammers continental campaign continues with the visit of Rapid Vienna to the London Stadium. A home victory will allow West Ham to take control of the group.

European football makes its long-awaited return to the east-end tonight as West Ham look to build on their successful start in Zagreb and stay on course for the knockout stages of the Europa League.

Group stage cup football is a new experience for the Hammers and although it may lack the jeopardy of sudden death elimination, it does provide a guarantee of at least three home fixtures for fans to enjoy. It will be interesting to see how that impacts the attendance – I would expect a crowd somewhere north of 40,000 for today’s visit of Rapid Vienna.

Finishing top of Group H and avoiding the Preliminary knockout round, when third placed teams from the Champion’s League groups drop into the competition, would be a huge bonus. Win the three home games and that would be a big step through to the last sixteen.

The progress of Premier League clubs in the Champion’s League has not bothered me much in recent years but I’m now hoping they all qualify from their groups. I will happily trade the schadenfreude of their elimination for not having to face home opposition in the latter stages.

The game against Rapid Vienna will be West Ham’s first competitive encounter with Austrian opposition. Rapid are the most successful club ever in Austrian football having won the league thirty-two times, and the cup fourteen times. They twice reached the final of the European Cup Winners Cup but lost on both occasions.

Having finished second in the Austrian Bundesliga last season they have struggled for results in a hectic start to the new season. Tonight, will be their twenty-first competitive fixture – against West Ham’s ninth. Rapid were eliminated from Champion’s League qualifying by Sparta Prague but then went on to beat teams from Cyprus and Ukraine in reaching the Europa League group stage, where they lost their opening game at home to Genk. They have also struggled for domestic league form and currently sit eleventh placed out of twelve teams.

David Moyes will want to get the home campaign off to a storming start in front of an expectant crowd. It needs the selection of a strong side although there could well be starts for squad players such as Alphonse Areola, Ben Johnson, Issa Diop, Craig Dawson, Alex Kral and Manuel Lanzini. Perhaps the biggest question is whether the club’s lone striker Michail Antonio is given a start or is kept as emergency standby on the bench.

Possible line-up: Areola, Johnson, Zouma, Diop, Cresswell, Rice, Kral, Vlasic, Lanzini, Benrahma, Bowen

The Europa League promises to be a great experience for the club and its supporters. It may also be a more realistic route to Champion’s League qualification than a top four Premier League finish at this point in time – although, there is, of course, still a long way to go. A win today will be another step for the Hammers in staking their claim at the top of the group. Accepting that no game is ever easy – and nothing can be taken for granted – I still forecast a clear West Ham victory here tonight – by two or three goals. COYI!