In a season which so far has failed to live up to expectations, one of the brightest spots has been the way we have approached the UEFA Europa Conference League. Six wins from six in the group stage, and the first time that any team has done that in its history – and yes, I know the competition is virtually brand new, but they’ll never take that record from us.
It was really nice to wrap up the group with a comprehensive win against the artist formerly known as Steaua Bucharest — now cunningly named ‘FSBC’ after a bit of shareholder shenanigans. A 3-0 victory away from home in any European competition is not to be sniffed at, but goals from Pablo Fornals and a goal which should have been credited to Divin Mubama – I mean, it was an own goal, but still, it should have been – meant serene and perfect passage through to the knockout stages of the competition next year.
It was difficult not to be impressed. On another day, Mubama could have scored a hat-trick — he was a real livewire. On the left, Oliver Scarles, who by the way is just 16, and has been at the Academy of Football since he was 12, looked scarily at home, and Conor Coventry, a player who we have seen a little more of, looked comfortable in his role in midfield — and he’s only 22.
In fact, Coventry started the final two matches of the group stage, and after the 1-0 win against Silkeborg, David Moyes was very complimentary of the midfielder’s performance: ‘I thought Conor played really well tonight. I could easily have kept him on. I was a bit wary of the booking. I thought the referee was booking quite easily tonight and I was worried anything could slip.’
However, his performance in the defeat against Blackburn in the League Cup was disappointing, with a failure to influence the game in an attacking sense and an alarming regularity in giving the ball away. It was a wasted opportunity to demonstrate his credentials, and in truth, it’s hard to know what Coventry’s immediate future might look like.
Having also had a taste of Premier League action too, coming on as a sub in the 2-0 defeat against Manchester City, there is a danger that his career may go the way of other promising youngsters such as Freddie Sears and Josh Cullen — with a level of that below the first team at West Ham United. We shall see.
On a happier note, though, the team have got European competition in 2023 to look forward to. According to the FiveThirtyEight website, West Ham are currently the most likely side to win the UEFA Europa Conference League, but there’s stronger opposition to come in the knockout stages next year.
Fellow group stage winners Nice and Villarreal in particular look like a possibly juicy tie. But don’t forget, there’s also some potential entrants from the Europa League who might also become part of the competition, should they get through their play-off.
Two of the biggest names, Lazio and Fiorentina would be particularly eye-catching ties, and any of these four matches would be well worth watching. The UEFA Europa Conference League might well lack some of the perceived glamour of the Europa League and the Champions League, but you know what — the matches that I’ve seen this season have been hugely enjoyable and I’m really enjoying European Thursday nights.
Yes, they mess up the weekends a bit and there’s no doubt that the extra matches played most likely affect our league form, but I still say that it’s really nice to be in a European competition that I genuinely think we have a chance of winning. And since there’s also a possibility that it might be the last time we can say that for a while, I’m going to enjoy the ride.