Looking forward to West Ham’s final Europa League group game presents something of a conundrum. The group has already been won and the club will not want to risk further injuries to key players. But there is still a significant fixture to fulfil (with implication for final placings) and also a sizeable London Stadium crowd to entertain. Will it be a case of going through the motions or putting on a show while under no pressure?
For the Hammers, there is only pride and a few hundred thousand of extra Euros in prize money at stake (to add to the almost €9 million already earned). For Dinamo Zagreb, the prospect of finishing second in the group and a crack at one the clubs eliminated from the Champion’s League remains a possibility. Or perhaps, they would fancy their chances of a longer European run by dropping down into the Conference.
We know by now seven of the eight teams dropping from the Champions League to compete in the Europa League Knockout play-offs. These are RB Leipzig, Porto, Dortmund, Sheriff, Barcelona, Sevilla, Zenit, plus one of Villareal or Atalanta. There are several intriguing opponents in that group with the potential for dramatic and electrifying nights under the London Stadium floodlights. The jeopardy of sudden death elimination is what makes cup football so special – when it finally comes alive!
West Ham’s recent dip in results reached an astonishing turnaround on Saturday lunchtime with a thrilling victory against league leaders, Chelsea. So shell-shocked was the visitor’s defence that they conceded three times again last night. Joy at the result was tempered to some extent by injuries to Kurt Zouma and Ben Johnson but it was still a day and result to savour.
Once again, Declan Rice was imperious as his market value ticks up faster than a petrol pump meter. He has just about every attribute that you could ask for in a modern midfield player – anticipation, positioning, strength, passing, interceptions, dribbling and shooting. He has now been inaugurated into my all-time best West Ham XI – the most recent addition since Paolo Di Canio.
There were outstanding performances elsewhere on the pitch as well. Defensively, we were sound in blunting Chelsea’s attacking intent while Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio were particularly impressive in attack during the second half. It was encouraging to see an excellent shift put in by a born again Manuel Lanzini, as was Said Benrahma’s 100% pass completion of the note from David Moyes to his captain – achieved without surrendering possession or accidentally giving it to an opponent.
Somehow, the nature of the winning goal fitted the occasion perfectly. Less King Arthur and more Merlin the magician – the enchanter of the Blues, whose sorcery bewitched and bewildered Mendy in the Chelsea goal. I would love to believe it was intentional even if Masuaku’s enigmatic tweet suggested otherwise. He just didn’t know that he meant it.
Masuaku will be one of handful of senior players featuring in tonight’s starting line-up. Joined by Alphonse Areola, Mark Noble, Andriy Yarmolenko, Nikola Vlasic and Alex Kral. I suspect one of the two senior centre-backs still standing will also start, and fancy this will be Issa Diop. The balance will be made up with academy players who will see it as an amazing opportunity. The predicted starting eleven: Areola, Ashby, Diop, Baptiste, Masuaku, Noble, Kral, Yarmolenko, Vlasic, Benrahma, Perkins.
The new variant of Covid is threatening to wreak havoc with team selection. Hopefully none of our squad have been out socialising down with their Tottenham counterparts at the Bottler’s Arms. Although, I do have a suspicion that Conte is attempting to get as many matches postponed as possible so that he can sign some decent players by the time the games are played.
Dinamo Zagreb will take the runners-up spot in Group H is they avoid defeat tonight or if Genk fail to beat Rapid Vienna. Their campaign has been inconsistent so far but they may feel confident of holding on to second place given the West Ham’s lack of incentive. Although beaten 2-0 at home by Hadjuk Split on Sunday, Dinamo remain fourth in the Croatia league and are reasonably placed for a shout at a 23rd title.
A drawn game tonight would be no huge surprise.