Late last month as we were still desperate for new signings in the closing days of the summer transfer window, the Europa League draw saw us placed in Group H.
It was a thrilling day for me as the reality of our presence in the Europa League became real, with three opponents revealed: Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia; Genk of Belgium; and Rapid Wien of Austria.
I – as I’m sure many of you did – exhaled a sigh of relief as we avoided some of the tougher competition in renowned clubs such as Real Sociedad and Lazio, as well as clubs with former club ties such as Manuel Pelligrini’s Real Betis and Dimitri Payet’s Marseille.
Being knocked out by Astra Giurgiu in the qualifying stages of the Europa League in 2016 has made me a bit nervous of European competition.
But how comfortable can we be with our Group H opponents?
Kicking off with Dinamo Zagreb, and I caught up with Nick Stampar – our US-born Balkan aficionado, and expert pundit on all things Slavic.
He told me that Zagreb will be a threat, especially with Mislav Oršić running the wing. Oršić – you may recall – scored a hattrick against Tottenham last season, ending their Europa League ambitions.
Their former manager Mamic went to prison the same month as the Spurs game for fraud and embezzlement. Consequently, the team dipped in form and had some struggles with identity, but now currently top their table.
They play a 4-1-4-1 formation, and could be our biggest threat in the group.
Nick suggested that we shouldn’t take Dinamo for granted, nor should we underestimate Zagreb at their Stadion Maximir, which holds 35,123 and has a large track around the pitch similar to the London Stadium.
He suggests any atmosphere lost in the architecture will be made up by the power of the fan base.
The ultras of Dinamo Zagreb are known as ‘the Bad Blue Boys’, who had police escorts when they went to London and Manchester in past European duels.
Nick recommends traveling fans wear neutral colors around the grounds due to this intensity.
With talent, experience, and massive fanbase, they will give us a good fight. Nick says that Dinamo will have a point to prove about the quality of Croatian football, to our English and European viewers.
Next up is Genk, a club which, in recent years, has produced and scouted some of the best players on the current world stage, including the likes of De Bruyne, Courtois, Origi, Trossard, Ndidi, Benteke, and Berg.
They value investing in the youth, and doing so has secured Champions League on three occasions, most recently in the 19/20 season, where they were thrashed by Liverpool and RB Salzberg, and drew versus Napoli.
A 26-year-long Genk fan, Jimmy Klerkx, has seen his club rise from a Division 2 team to four-time champions in the top flight, while also gathering five Belgium Cups in that time.
Genk’s current attacking threats include Ike Ugba, but in Jimmy’s opinion the real threat is Paul Onuachu, who scored 33 goals last season assisted by two unpredictable, pacy wingers in Bongonda and Ito.
Young American defender Mark Mckenzie, who helped Philadelphia Union to a league win in the MLS, is at the back defending.
But besides these individual players, Jimmy says: ‘Our threat is our team. They fight for each other until the last second.’
Jimmy thinks the manager at Genk – John van den Brom – though not a tactical genius, is a great man-manager, who prefers to play a standard 4-3-3
‘He loves to attack. If we need to defend we can also switch to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2.’
The Genk stadium, Luminus Arena, is smaller in size and only hosts 21,500 people, but Jimmy adds: ‘It is a real football stadium with an electric atmosphere.’
He adds they have a ‘forza racing’ chant that has surprised supporters and many opponents with its power, including Chelsea: ‘Our fans keep on singing all game, even when we lose’.
Jimmy respects West Ham and knows they’re in good form in the Premier League. He thinks Genk has a chance if West Ham underestimate Genk and don’t put out a strong team.
Last but not least is Rapid Wien (Vienna). They are, according to fan, Helmut Kronika as ‘the most popular club in Austria; record holder of Austrian 32 championships and a worldwide fanbase. A traditional football club from working class roots, loved by the common people.’
Rapid Vienna are managed by Didi Kühbauer, a former Rapid player, who likes a ‘physical, rather attacking style of football’, and will press West Ham with their strikers, Tax Fountas and the Austrian international Ercan Kara – both of them having scored important goals in European competition.
Rapid Vienna – like Genk – is a club that incorporates a lot of youth players to develop, so there will be pace.
They play at the newly-built Westadion in West Vienna, built on the site of their former stadium.
It has a capacity of 28,500 people and regularly packed with Rapid Vienna fans ‘who – even to European standards – are renowned for being extremely passionate and loyal (some would say ‘fanatic’) with a strong ‘Ultras’ element dominating the fan block, which is always supportive and loud’, as Kronika puts it.
For the last fifteen minutes of the match, the supporters begin a rhythmic clapping called the ‘Rapid-Viertelstunde,’ which happens away or home, win or lose.
Kronika says that Rapid fans are very excited to play West Ham, and they view the Hammers as a traditional and real football club, not having succumbed to rampant commercialisation or big money from uber rich investors.
Zagreb, Genk, and Rapid Wein seem to possess strong attacking sides with passionate fans, who have consistency in winning in their respective competitions, meaning West Ham will have to play on the front foot and show no signs of overconfidence.
West Ham will rely on team unity, Premier League standards, and recent form to pull them through, but we should underestimate a sport whose wins belong to the bolder of spirit on any given day.