Three European campaigns in three years – we’ll have done so much traveling with Moyes that we’ll forget about the Rice we left on the burner. We are in the thick of the group stages in the Europa League with a favourable draw in Group A against TSC Backa Topola from Serbia, SC Freiburg from Germany, and Olympiacos from Greece.
Fortune has come out of hiding for a brief moment with this draw as although each team is respected in their own individual leagues, are not quite the calibre of Premier Leagues sides or as threatening as some of the other Europa League’s competitors. We managed to avoid the Group B – this campaign’s ‘Group of Death’ – which include Ajax, Brighton, Marseilles, and Athens.
We also managed to avoid other tough competitors in various groups such as Mourinho’s Roma, Bayern Leverkusen, Slavia Praha, Villarreal, and the Rangers for now. But who is our competition? Already we’ve had our opening battle with the Serbian team in TSC Backa, who did their homework against West Ham by smothering us with a high press and made Moyes play a game he is uncomfortable with… possession-based football!
The Serbs took up the counterattack, giving us possession of the football not dropping from 70% the whole match. Nick Stampar, a Serbian Football aficionado, notes that ‘while a very small town club, they have become unlikely upstarts in the Serbian league, making them a tough team to gauge; when a smaller club can start to seriously challenge perennial league winners like Zvezdas and Partizans of the world, they’re clearly playing with momentum and unity, which makes them even more dangerous to unsuspecting opponent’.
He’s hoping that by the time we play them in a rematch in the Autumn, they’ll be broken by other losses and won’t be as much of a threat. For our second match in Europe, we trotted to Germany to play SC Freiburg – better known as the ‘Breisgau Brazilians’ in their own style of banter as Breisgau is a region near the Black Forest where Freiburg is located, who had a successful team packed with Brazilians in the 1990s.
Freiberg, under the management of Streich, play a 3-4-3 formation with a midfield pivot, and ahead of the game, I saw them as a threat as they’d secured a 3-2 victory versus Olympiacos. They’d also secured an impressive draw against our past Europa League rivals Frankfurt in the Bundesliga.
Frieburg also have their own James Ward-Prowse in Vincenzo Grifo who delivers a mean cross, and will be dangerous in set plays. They also have at least five homegrown players on their bench in what the sporting directors Jochen Saier and Klemens Hartenbach uncannily call ‘The Freiburg Way’.
Lastly we have Greek league giants Olympiacos FC – the most successful team in Greek football. While they may hold the most title wins of Greek clubs and have had a successful football history, the last time they faced West Ham in European football was in the 1965-66 European Cup Winners’ Cup where they were defeated 6-2 aggregate by Bobby Moore and co.
Olympiacos had a tumultuous 22-23 season last year with inner-league drama, fans invading the pitch, the club threatening to quit the league, and talk of corruption. But despite not securing a league title, they maintained a decent standing and entered another season of European football.
They’ve entered their current season swinging wildly in hopes to regain their standing, having zero losses, two draws, and five wins at the time of writing. They are the Man City of the Greek league with multiple attacking threats in El Kaabi at seven goals, Giorgos Masouras at five goals, Konstantinos Fortounis at four goals, and Youssef El Arabi at four goals in a season with only seven matches thus far.
David Moyes’ low block counter attacking style might prove to be their undoing as they seem attack heavy and hopefully we’ll be able to show them what the English low block can do to an attack-minded squad. All in all, we should exit the Group stages unscathed just as we have in the last two European tours, with the real threats coming after.