Respect shown after Hammers reach the Europa League last-16

West Ham joined Bayer Leverkusen, Lyon, and Monaco last month in being confirmed as Europa League group winners with a game to spare. Who would have expected such an early show of strength from a side that was in a relegation battle two years ago?

Now as many of you know, the eight winners of each group will be seeded and entered into the round of 16 which will be played in March. The eight runners up from each group will enter into essentially a playoff round against the eight third place teams from the Champions League which will be played in February. 

Amongst the teams battling it out to qualify for the Round of 16 from the Europa League, at the time of writing, are the Rangers and Manuel Pelligrini’s Real Betis, and from the Champions League Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Sheriff, Zenit and Tiraspol with the possibility of Messi-less Barcelona joining the mix.

I caught up with fans of some of these possible rivals that we could face on our path to European glory, starting off with Lyon. They qualified for the round of 16 early with the most points, no draws and no losses. Lyon supporter Nathan Laud attributes this to a good group selection with opponents that were on the same level as Lyon. 

Nathan states that Lyon approached each match with utmost respect and took all opponents seriously, and that manager Peter Bosz has instilled ‘a very clean game and climate within the club, that is very healthy for the players’.  Laud stressed that Lyon’s transfer window or ‘Mercato’ success had been an essential boost to the club with the addition of Boateng, Paqueta, and Emerson; this coupled with Bosz’ management created the ‘perfect cocktail’ both on and off the field for the victories for Lyon.

While Laud thinks that Leicester, Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen are the teams he fears the most, he adores West Ham and thinks they will be a dangerous rival just slightly below those other teams. He admires West Ham’s defence and is most excited by Antonio and Benrahma. Laud thinks Lyon has a good chance for winning the tournament outright based on the positive management of Peter Bosz, the skills of Paqueta, and the scoring prowess of Toko Ekambi who he dubs ‘Mr Europa League’.

Clinching the second spot in their group, Rangers will play in the qualifying matches to enter the Round of 16 where third-placed Champions League teams and other second place group teams will also compete. Rangers supporter ‘T.V.P’ says the Rangers’ success has been brought about by the management of Stephen Gerrard who gave Rangers ‘a level of pride and a noteworthy reputation back to the club worldwide, taking us from below 300th in the coefficiency rankings, all the way up to most recently achieving 41st place after this seasons group stage so far’.

Rangers have made it into Europa league group stages four years in a row and to knockout rounds in the last two years. T.V.P thinks that Rangers’ new management under Giovanni van Bronckhorst and his backroom staff, could create ‘an extremely dynamic and versatile team, and one which is capable of playing in many different systems, mostly in the 4-3-3 formation with an efficient front line, with Morelos especially looking to collect the ball in the opposition box and score some more goals’; this tactical genius from Bronckhorst provides the club with exciting play, but only suffers recently from a weak defence.

Rangers past consistency under Gerrard, with their new dynamism under Bronckhorst make them a formidable contender even though T.V.P reckons that they will face equal if not greater opposition and sees Rangers as an underdog to West Ham: ‘West Ham is a massive club with a rich history. Amazing players have played there in the past and will continue to, I believe. West Ham would be a massive threat to us, we’d definitely go into the tie as underdogs’. T.V.P was also ecstatic to watch West Ham ‘thrash Celtic in preseason’.

Moving on, and still fighting to continue in the Champions League, Messi-less Barcelona are barely holding second place in Group E. If they lose to Munich, and Benfica win against Dynamo Kiev, they will be dropped to the Europa League qualifying rounds, which means West Ham actually have a chance of playing at Camp Nou.

Barca supporter Tolulope Adaranijo is not confident that Xavi’s new Barcelona will progress in the Champions League as their last opponent is Bayern Munich who have won all five matches thus far and gives a high percentage for them to drop to Europa league, although he doesn’t see the Europa League competition being that intimidating for the football giants even without Messi: ‘Barcelona is never going to fade away’.

Adranijo has been following West Ham since last season when Moyes’ boys broke into the top six and holds them as an ‘amazing team’ and the top competitor entering the round of 16, with a better defensive structure than Barcelona but without ‘the skillful wingers and dribblers’ of the legendary Spanish club. He thinks West Ham struggle against larger opposition, but still holds them as his biggest fear.

Pellegrini’s talents may have not brought the success to West Ham that we’d wished, but ‘the engineer’ is still winning matches with Real Betis under his sound planning. Real Betis has positioned themselves as second in their group and made it to the qualifying rounds.

Juan David is a Betis supporter and sees Pellegrini as the ultimate reason for Betis’ positive run having ‘lost only seven matches in 2021, a European record’.  He fears only Champions League teams who have dropped into the qualifiers, Lyon, West Ham, and Leicester.

David – like others interviewed – sees West Ham as an historic team with a large fanbase, and knows Rice, Fornals, Zouma and is well aware of Antonio’s pace. Pellegrini’s Real Betis is strong on attack and weaker on defence as West Ham fans are well aware, but David assures us that ‘Pellegrini gives the team competitiveness and a [winning mentality] capable of standing up to any rival…overcoming adverse results’. 

Borussia Dortmund, like Barcelona, are another team who were ranked third in their Champions League group stage and have dropped to the Europa League Round of 16 qualifiers. This is very disappointing to BVB fans as Dortmund is usually in the Champions League round of 16, and as Dortmund supporter Ray from BVB Express put it, this is an additional loss because ‘of the economic value of progressing to the next round’.

Ray believes highly in Dortmund’s attack with ‘many goal scorers’ and a strong left side, but believes ‘our weakness is our defence, leaks in goals [and we] are the worst defensive sides in the league’. Along with clubs like Napoli, Lazio, and Leverkusen as the strongest rivals in the Europa League, Ray also believes West Ham is a strong club that’s in-form and will be a dangerous rival.

He makes no false pretence of confidence and sees strong competition all around. With West Ham’s recent good fortune, a team comprised players from with international stage pedigree, and a competition that is formidable, West Ham fans can have confidence in a good showing on our march to victory, with even fans from opposing teams worldwide appreciating the new force cheering on by the drum of Moyes’ claret and blue army.

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