After the lingering disappointment of crashing out of the Europa League in the 2022 semi-finals, West Ham are back in it for the 23/24 season, and we’ve picked up some shiny silverware on the way. Yes, of course, instead of using our previous league position to claw our way back into the Europa League, we’ve snuck in the back door and gained automatic entry by winning the sister competition.
It doesn’t matter how you get there (the ‘fair play’ league, anyone?), it just matters how you show up in it. Let’s not beat around the bush, I hope we win it, don’t you?
It would sweeten the bitterness of not at least getting to the final the season before last, but it would also give the naysayers a little something to chew on. There’s also a little more incentive for me personally, this season. The final is at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, which is a mere sub-60 minute drive from my house.
Granted, that doesn’t mean I’ll get tickets, but it does mean if I want to soak up the day with fellow Hammers, I can. And I will. But that’s all a daydream for now. The competition will be stiff this year, with the likes of Atalanta, Real Betis, Villarreal, Bayer Leverkusen and Roma making up the lineup, the path could be rocky.
Not to mention that Liverpool and Brighton are also through to the group stages following fifth and sixth place finishes respectively. We’d like to avoid those at all costs, I think. I hardly think Bogey Albion are going to give us a better break in Europe, and Liverpool are unstoppable on their day, we know that.
When you play clubs in your own country, they know you so much better and what played to our strength in the last couple of seasons of European football is being a relatively unknown entity to the opposition. With further qualifying rounds coming up this month, the lineup is yet to be complete. But I would have said the last time around for us was a more daunting prospect in terms of the teams in play.
Sevilla were in there, and as we know, we knocked them out of their self-proclaimed specialty competition. They could, of course, be demoted from the Champions League and pose a threat again, but let’s hope not – surely lightning can’t strike twice.
But we want to avoid a so-called ‘group of death’ from the outset. Liverpool are currently the highest ranked team in the competition, so luckily we cannot be drawn against them in the group stages as they are both in the same country and the same pot. As it stands, before the play-offs, a deadly group for us contains Sporting CP. They’re the highest ranked non-English team in competition and could land in Pot 2.
Pots 3 and 4 are mostly to be decided, but I think we can deal with most of the teams that can be thrown at us, if we are motivated and focused. Now if you’ll forgive me, I have to take some painkillers after working through the science of the draw!
Even if it’s a case of muddling through the group stages, I’d take that. We have a squad that’s well rehearsed in Thursday/Sunday football but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. More games, more travel and the potential for more injuries makes it a tough ask for any team, let alone one that struggled in the league last season.
But I do want to make it out of the group stages and into knockout football. As fans we love it and as a club we need it to keep growing. As for our team itself, there are big changes. Declan Rice bossed European games for us in the last two seasons and we badly need a leader to replace his presence.
In recent history we’ve gone into European cup ties with Noble or Rice to settle things. We need this constant across the Europa League and Premier League to be the person to turn to if we look out of our depth as a team. Of our current squad, Antonio, Benrahma, Fornals and Cresswell lead the way in terms of appearances. This quartet will therefore be key to consistency and experience.
I can see Moyes switching it up a little and mixing youth with experience. I think he’s got the bit between his teeth to win it after making a semi-final and winning an alternative trophy over the last two seasons. His beaming face after the Conference League victory says it all, he’s a proud leader of this team and would love that feeling again without any sourness from league performances to detract from progress.
That’s why I think he’ll use the likes of Mubama, who at the tender age of 18 has a couple of Conference League appearances and a goal under his belt. But he’ll also want someone like Cresswell at the other end to bark out the orders and keep a level head.
That’s two players who can play key roles in Europe and I wouldn’t consider them ‘second-string’, but they may be allowed to focus on the competition. I’d love to see Areola keep his place in the Europa League, and I think he will unless he’s promoted to Premier League action to replace Fabianski.
This all gets real on 1st September, when the group draw takes place. The first games are scheduled for 21st September, making next month a big one for us. The league season will be in full swing and while they’re not interconnected, clearly, momentum can play a big part in getting our European hopes off to a solid start. Bring it on!