Undefeated in Europe, will Moyes’ Boys claim glory next summer?

After six wins out of six, Jake Gill reflects on our positive Conference League campaign so far

West Ham’s UEFA Europa Conference League campaign has been the sole glimmer of hope in what has been a sub-par season so far. Despite our poor form in the Premier League, we have qualified as winners of Group B, becoming the first team ever to qualify from the group stages with a 100% winning rate.

Last season’s inaugural UECL proved that there is real merit to this competition — Roma’s victory and subsequent celebrations highlighted just how illustrious winning it would be for our club. After last season’s European campaign, which took us all the way to the Europa League semi-finals, Moyes and the squad are clearly focused on European glory this year.  

Vladimir Coufal has asserted that ‘we are going to do everything we can do to reach the final’, while David Moyes has claimed that last season’s final proved how important a victory would be: ‘If you look at Jose Mourinho, who has won all the competitions, how big he felt it was. I would love to be in a position to win it as well.’ 

Not only does it provide the fans with an exciting cup journey to follow the team on, but European success enables us to attract top players to the London Stadium, so it is vital for the progression of the club to have a successful campaign. We kicked off our campaign at home against FCSB. All in all, the fixture was a rather reserved and abnormal fixture — the game was overshadowed by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whose passing was announced less than two hours before kick-off.

There was no pre-game music or build up, resulting in an understandably subdued atmosphere at London Stadium. Fans were given little to shout about after our sluggish first half performance too — we had very few ideas on the pitch, which resulted in a goal for Andrei Cordea, who put the visitors ahead in the 34th minute.

It wasn’t until the second half that the team’s performance improved. Moyes made three changes at half time, bringing on Antonio, Paquetá, and Bowen to inject some energy into our forward line. When Stefan Tarnovanu failed to claim the ball in a challenge with Maxwel Cornet, the referee awarded a penalty and it was Jarrod Bowen who stepped up to take it.  

We’ve struggled with our penalty takers of late, so it was great to see him blast it into the top corner.   Emerson got onto the scoresheet for the first time in claret and blue, while a lovely flick from Fornals and a great turn from Antonio sent the Jamaican forward away to score his third goal of the season.

One man who shined brightly during his performance was Flynn Downes — the former Swansea midfielder looked comfortable in possession next to Rice, breaking up play and moving the ball on really well.   His performance highlighted everything missing in our midfield at the moment, which will surely give Moyes something to think about following Tomáš Souček’s drop in form.

Up next was Silkeborg away. The return of Craig Dawson to the West Ham starting line-up was a welcome surprise — we’ve missed his physicality at times, desperately craving a player who puts his body on the line for the team.  However, his lack of game time was visible in the initial phase of the game, and the defence was caught unaware five minutes in when Kasper Kusk found the back of the net for Silkeborg.  

However, we quickly turned things around when Manuel Lanzini converted a penalty won by Maxwel Cornet, followed by a stunning finish from Gianluca Scamacca and a bullet header from Craig Dawson, who made up for his earlier error in typical Dawson fashion.   Silkeborg proved themselves to be a worthy opponent, and their tenacity rewarded them with a second goal in a game that we should’ve closed off completely.

Despite his thunderbolt finish, one player who Moyes singled out for criticism was Scamacca: ‘I was a bit disappointed with some of his early performance but he grew into the game. We’re still getting him used to it.’ 

The Italian has already shown glimpses of his ability, and it seems that he will be a top-level player once he has settled into life in east London. Moyes just needs to show the striker some faith and allow him to build up form with some regular appearances. A trip to Belgium was next and to Anderlecht. As Belgium’s most successful football team of all time, Anderlecht were clearly our strongest competition for first place in the group.  

After dominating the early phases of the match, the game grew into a relatively even affair between the two sides.   The substitutes changed the game for us late on when Lucas Paquetá found Scamacca, who buried the ball into the bottom corner.  

It’s a partnership that promises big things for the Hammers going forward, and the duo are beginning to form an understanding.   As the season goes on, their ability to play off of one another could be crucial to our chances in the Europa Conference League and our push for a European spot in the Premier League.

An unbelievable stop from Areola in the 84th minute kept Fabio Silva out, and we held on. Moyes was happy enough with the result, seeing the victory as an opportunity to kickstart the season: ‘We want to try and get going — I think the players are beginning to show signs of getting back to form. We’re beginning to get one or two goals. I think we should be scoring more, but a clean sheet and the team winning is always good.’

We welcomed Anderlecht to the London Stadium next, and following a close away fixture previously, there was much anticipation for the home fixture.   Back-to-back European campaigns have given Hammers fans a selection of dream fixtures to enjoy, and a game against the 34-time Belgian title winners at the London Stadium was just another example of these fantastic match-ups.  

Unfortunately, much of the action came in the stands rather than on the pitch, as lairy Anderlecht supporters clashed with the home fans, ripping out seats and throwing flares in a violent and unwarranted display. The close scoreline flattered the visitors here and we were clearly the stronger team throughout the fixture.  

A stunning free-kick from Saïd Benrahma saw us take the lead, whipping the ball over the wall and into the bottom corner, a finish which saw him bag the club’s October goal of the month award.  Sixteen minutes later, Emerson found Jarrod Bowen on the edge of the box, who nestled the ball into the top corner with a classy finish.  

A late Esposito penalty saw Anderlecht claw one back, but it was a largely comfortable night for the Hammers, securing our qualification into the knock-out rounds of the Conference League. Benrahma proved once again that he is our most in-form attacker, leaving little doubt that he deserves to be among the first names on the team sheet based on current form.  

While Moyes clearly has his reservations about the Algerian winger, teammate Jarrod Bowen stated that ‘you can see Benrahma’s quality every day in training and when it’s not going for you, like me at the start of the season, it just doesn’t happen. But he’s a strong character and the free kick just shows his quality. He was a menace all night. He was getting past defenders and putting balls into the box — that’s what I see every day.’  

If he was allowed a consistent run in the starting eleven, he might be able to prove to Moyes that his qualities far outshine any weaknesses he possesses. With just a point needed to secure our place as winners of Group B, it came as no surprise that David Moyes selected a reasonably strong line-up against Silkeborg, despite the congested fixture list in the lead up to the World Cup.  

In our first match against the Danish side, we were caught off guard by an early goal, and as the game progressed, it became clear that Silkeborg were an organised team, never giving up at any point, pushing us until the final whistle. Securing victory in this game was important to make sure we could head into the final group game with no pressure on our shoulders.

While nine changes were made from the team who faced Bournemouth just three nights prior to this game, our team included plenty of senior squad members, including Coufal, Ogbonna, Lanzini, Fornals, Benrahma and Antonio.  Nayef Aguerd finally made his competitive debut for the club too, returning from injury four months on from his £30 million transfer from Rennes.  

It was an excellent outing from the Moroccan, who appeared calm and collected on the ball, distributing it smartly from the back, and when Silkeborg pressed forward, appeared solid in his defensive duties. A clunky challenge from Silkeborg goalkeeper Nicolai Larson on Michail Antonio saw the Jamaican forward win a penalty, and it was Manuel Lanzini who stepped up to bury it.  

We perhaps should have had more than just the one goal — so often this season, we’ve created chances, but failed to finish them, and this game was no exception.  Benrahma and Fornals missed excellent opportunities to extend our lead in the second half, and had it not been for Alphonse Areola’s outstanding reflexes in the 55th minute, Soren Tengstedt would have equalised for the Danish visitors.

Again, Silkeborg proved to be a stubborn adversary — they set up solidly at the back and proved difficult to break down, and even when it seemed as if the game was under control, they caused trouble by catching us on the break. Despite this, we dominated the game, and with our victory, managed to secure our place in the last 16 as Group B victors.

The Hammers had a trip to Bucharest to round off the Conference League group stage. Having qualified against Silkeborg, our final game was something of a dead rubber for us in the Romanian capital. However, it gave us a chance to give some of the fringe players in the squad a runout, and it also proved to be a triumphant night for the academy.

However, it was Pablo Fornals who broke the deadlock, running onto Ben Johnson’s fantastic long ball and finding the back of the net with excellent precision. The Spaniard had demanded to play against FCSB, despite being offered the chance to remain at home with some of the other senior squad members, a testament to his character and his passion for the club.

A glorious moment presented itself for Divin Mubama in the 56th minute, whose header deflected off of Joyskim Dawa and found the back of the net.  Unfortunately for Mubama, UEFA decided that his header was veering off-target before the deflection and gave it as an own goal, but it will remain an unforgettable memory for the young forward, who will surely open his West Ham account before long.

A man of the match performance from 16-year-old Ollie Scarles stole the headlines for the Hammers — he pushed forward well, delivering a series of devastating crosses from the left-hand side, one of which was parried into the path of Fornals, who finished with style once again, wrapping up the three points. In the latter stages of the game, academy graduates Freddie Potts and Keenan Appiah-Forson made only their second appearances for the Hammers, while Kamari Swyer and Kaelan Casey were handed their professional debuts.

Each and every academy player did themselves and the club proud, all working hard to create chances and protect Alphonse Areola in goal. While we had little to play for, it was an extremely positive night for the club. With our victory against FCSB, West Ham became the first team to ever achieve a perfect group stage campaign, attaining six victories from a possible six, scoring 13 goals and only conceding four.  

The academy had a chance to shine, showing that the future of the club looks bright. As group winners, we’ve automatically proceeded to the Round of 16 stage, meaning we won’t have to compete in a play-off fixture against the Europa League teams dropping into the Conference League.

While teams like Villareal, Lazio, and Fiorentina are also vying for a chance to follow in Roma’s footsteps, we are currently second-favourites to lift the trophy. The World Cup break has come at the perfect time for David Moyes who now has a chance to rethink his tactics going forward.

The Scotsman has given us some much-needed stability over the last few years, and I hope that this period of time will allow him to work out the kinks that have been plaguing us so far this season. There’s still much to play for this season, not least the return of European knockout football to London Stadium in the new year.  

Let’s just hope that we can go one step further this time and reach the final at the Eden Arena in Prague next June.

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