Regardless of league position and results, we remain in the Europa Conference League and have gloriously made it to the quarter final stage. The draw has brought us a tie with Belgian outfit KAA Gent with either AZ Alkmaar or Anderlecht waiting in the wings if a semi final is to be our destiny.
Gent knocked Spurs out of the Europa League in 2017, the season our rivals finished second in the league. But their fans are now feeling less confident after losing a player who has been described as their best central defender, Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, to the Chinese Super League.
It’s been a plain-sailing European journey for West Ham so far, so I wanted to get the other side of the story to see how Gent fans are viewing these fixtures. I heard from The Hein View, Michiel and Steyn about how they feel about their chances of progressing to the semi final.
First off, how are Gent getting on in general this season?
‘Our season started bad. We also have had some serious injuries to key players,’ The Hein View told me. ‘Despite all this we are doing well. We look good to finish top four, and get a European ticket as a result of that.’
Michiel concurred: ‘It started off pretty badly like it usually does. We’ve been getting better over time considering we had a few new players who still had to get used to our way of playing. We’re in good form at the moment and I’m looking forward to the confrontation.’
Steyn added: ‘A lot of ups and downs. Our team and club is 100% in need of support. Without them we have problems on and off the pitch.’
How about their best players, who should we be wary of?
‘The most obvious answer is one of our strikers Gift Orban, he is a real goalgetter with 12 goals in 10 matches,” said The Hein View. ‘Also keep an eye on Julien De Sart who is our pivot in midfield and highly underrated.’
Michiel agreed: ‘I’d definitely keep an eye on Hugo Cuypers and Gift Orban up top. Cuypers has been in good form all season and Orban’s been banging them in since he arrived.’
Steyn followed with: ‘Gift Orban. He is new and scores very easily, something we missed in the first half of the season. But the fact is that Gent plays best when there is no one who stands out – when they’re all at the same level 100% believing in themselves.’
Let’s not forget, West Ham is a team full of talent. Who and what are Gent fans looking out for in our team?
‘When we attack, Declan Rice. As we struggle a lot when the player behind the strikers gets neutralised,’ started The Hein View. ‘When looking at West Ham’s offence, I obviously will tremble every time Paqueta has room or when Bowen isn’t marked tightly. Also shout out to Lanzini who’s style I love.’
Michiel also highlights the threats of our top scorer and joint top assistor: ‘I’d say Bowen and Rice. Bowen has scored quite a few goals in Europe this season and he had a good season too last year. Rice is just overall top quality in the midfield.’
Whilst Steyn is aware of the threats we pose, he’s concerned that the team can’t deal with it: ‘West Ham has a lot of quality players but to be honest, our biggest problem most often is not the opponent, but ourselves. We have the habit of conceding easy goals, stumbling, leaving passes too short. Also, I know every team has their own referee problems from time to time but ours is just abnormal.’
We feel your pain Steyn, we really do.
Let’s get down to the burning issue, the games in sight. How do Gent fans rate their chances against us across two legs?
The Hein View has us sussed: ‘KAA Gent has good momentum, and with the return of some key players we might be up for it. I guess it depends on which West Ham shows up and this might be influenced by how the relegation battle goes. But in the end I would favour the Hammers.’
Michiel isn’t too confident: “I’d say somewhere around 25%. West Ham are obviously the better team on paper. They’ve beaten Anderlecht twice this season too, but so have we. Playing the first leg at home is also a bit of a disadvantage for us in my opinion.’
Steyn, however, is on the fence: ‘Head says West Ham 60/40, the heart says Gent. But our recent European history says 50/50 because we play our best football against the best opponents.’
The side where it all began for a certain Kevin De Bruyne have a fair chance at this tie with West Ham having a mixed season, to put it mildly. But the fans are right, on paper we should progress against Gent to make another European semi final.
Whatever the result, it’s been really nice to chat to some fans of the Belgian side, so although I want us to breeze through the ties, I also wish them an enjoyable away day in London!