I wasn’t too sure what to expect going into the Europa League this season. In recent years when we’ve had the chance to qualify for the competition, we’ve offered up some pretty embarrassing performances.
I was worried that we may see some sort of repeat with the competition not being prioritised, however, it was naive of me to think like that. David Moyes is at the helm now and we’re winning every single competition we’re in (not quite but we’re giving them all a proper go for once).
We got drawn into arguably the most favourable group for a seed three team. Joined by Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia, Rapid Wien of Austria and Genk of Belgium, many Hammers believed getting out of the group stages was possible. However, I think it’s safe to say that no-one expected the ‘rapid’ start we had to our group.
In our first game we travelled away to Croatia to face Dinamo Zagreb in what, on paper, would be our toughest game. The Croatian side knocked Tottenham out in the latter stages of the competition the year previous and many were fearful of a fierce Croatian side.
On the night, however, the West Ham boys turned up well drilled, well pumped and in fine form. Moyes started a surprisingly strong team in Zagreb in my opinion with seven Premier League starters in the side.
The team selection worked wonders for Moyes as we went on to win, keeping a clean sheet and scoring two goals — courtesy of captain fantastic, Declan Rice and Michail Antonio. We barely broke a sweat on the night and easily nulled the opposition, restricting them to eight shots, none of which hit the target.
Two weeks later we had our first group game at home. Our opponents were Rapid Wien from Austria. Prior to the game, the Austrian’s form had been quite terrible. The club sat 11th in the Austrian Bundesliga having won once in their last six league games.
Their manager, Dietmar Kubauer, was full of praise for West Ham, stating: ‘West Ham are clear favourites to win this group, they have a great team. We have nothing to lose as they are much above our level.’ Moyes and his coaching staff picked an arguably weaker side for this game with some notable first team absentees including Pablo Fornals, Tomas Soucek and Kurt Zouma.
This didn’t disrupt the side too much and once again, we got the result that we all hoped for. After a frustrating first 29 minutes in terms of chance conversion, Declan Rice found the back of the net again after Michail Antonio put the ball on a plate for him.
We didn’t look too convincing for the rest of the game, however, the win never really looked in any danger. In the dying embers of the game Said Benrahma tucked away the last chance of the game to give us another 2-0 win in Europe.
So why is it that we’re performing so well in Europe? Personally, I believe that we underestimate the ability of our own team and the quality of the Premier League. Once again, we have started our domestic campaign off in fine fashion and have only improved our squad over the summer with the additions of Zouma, Vlasic, Kral and Areola.
The Premier League is often branded the best league in the world, but I sometimes think in Europe we are worried due to results of others that we have seen previously. For example, Tottenham’s defeat last year to Dinamo Zagreb. I also believe that a real fear has been attached to playing against West Ham which, in my opinion, is a good thing for this squad.
We often see Premier League teams struggle against ‘lesser’ opposition as they sometimes struggle to break them down. But I believe our current team has such a persistence about it that we will always be able to dig a goal out.
Looking forward to the remaining group games, I really do believe that if we went for it we could get maximum points. I don’t think we’ll do this as my thinking is that as we progress, Moyes will rotate further and we may incur a loss at some stage.
I do see us progressing to the knockout phases, hopefully winning the group, and I really believe we have a good chance of getting into the latter stages of the competition. We have to go for it, full steam ahead as we don’t know when our next European opportunity may be.