West Ham United are back in the Europa League, and their supporters will be relieved to know that Astra Giurgiu are nowhere to be seen. The Romanian side ended the Hammers’ participation in Europe’s secondary competition in 2015/16 and 2016/17, denying them a place in the group stage on both occasions. Mercifully, West Ham automatically qualified for the competition proper this time round.
Their latest continental campaign begins with a trip to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday. David Moyes’ men will also play Genk and Rapid Vienna home and away between now and December. It is by no means an easy group, but West Ham will fancy their chances of reaching the knockout phase.
Simply taking part in the tournament is a feat in itself. Few anticipated West Ham challenging for Europe last term. They entered the season with fans in open revolt following the sale of Grady Diangana to West Bromwich Albion, a transfer which the club captain Mark Noble publicly criticised. West Ham were beaten 2-0 by Newcastle United on the opening weekend. A long, hard season seemed to lie in store.
Instead they regrouped and, following a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United in their ninth game, spent the rest of the season in the top half of the table. It was only in the final weeks of the campaign that their Champions League challenge faded, but collecting seven points from the final nine available secured West Ham a top-six finish and Europa League football. West Ham finished above Tottenham Hotspur and, for the first time in the Premier League era, Arsenal.
Moyes could count himself unfortunate not to win the Manager of the Year award. His return to West Ham in December 2019 was not widely celebrated in the claret-and-blue households of east London. The Scot succeeded in keeping the club up that season, but he was not the type of ambitious appointment that many fans craved.
Yet Moyes has rebuilt his reputation at the London Stadium following his various post-Everton struggles. There are similarities to be drawn between his current team and those that he created at Goodison Park. West Ham have a solid spine exemplified by the midfield duo of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek and will need it if they are to prevent the Europa League impacting them domestically. They benefit from a strong team spirit and a collective work ethic which has no space for passengers, as one or two fringe players have found out in the past couple of seasons.
It is not all steel over silk, however. Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals are all, in different ways, excellent footballers. Rice and Soucek are better on the ball than they are sometimes given credit for. Vladimir Coufal and Aaron Cresswell contribute in the final third as much as the defensive third. And in Michail Antonio, Moyes has a more reliable centre-forward than he ever did at Everton.
West Ham have made a positive start to the new season, winning two and drawing two of their four matches so far. The Europa League will stretch their squad, although the arrival of Kurt Zouma and Nikola Vlasic at West Ham late in the window increases the competition for places at centre-back and in the attacking line of three behind Antonio. Failing to sign an understudy to the Jamaica striker could prove problematic, with one of Bowen or Andriy Yarmolenko likely to deputise up front against Manchester United on Sunday as Antonio serves a suspension.
West Ham should nevertheless embrace the Europa League. It may well have a slight adverse effect on their Premier League form, but it is hard to see Moyes’ side being dragged into a relegation battle. Provided they steer clear of the bottom three, there is no reason why West Ham should not target a run into the latter stages of the competition. After all, Astra Giurgiu are already out of the picture.
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