Deja-vu as we meet familiar foes Freiburg in the Europa League – again!

We’ve beaten them already twice this season but we shouldn’t be so confident of winning this tie

And so, we meet again. I can’t have been the only West Ham fan who was mildly disappointed by the Europa League last-16 draw. It’s weird saying that – it was only in the recent past where we would have given our right arm to be even in the competition – but of all the teams left, being drawn against Freiburg wasn’t quite the glamour tie that perhaps we’d hoped for.

Of course, we’ve already met them in this competition this season, defeating them twice in two Group A games. The away match saw us win 2-1, with an excellent Lucas Paqueta header from a pinpoint Bowen cross – voted the Europa League goal of the week – and an Aguerd effort from a corner cancelling out Roland Saillai’s equaliser shortly into the second half.

In the return game, a professional performance saw us cruise to a 2-0 win, with goals from Kudus and Alverez ensuring that a below-par Freiburg were beaten. This win was more impressive as it had come off the back of our 5-0 defeat to Fulham, whilst Freiburg had been unbeaten in three games without conceding.

All of this meant that we qualified in top spot in the Group, whilst the German outfit had to navigate one of those banana-skin two-legged play-off matches, this one against Lens, who finished third in their Champions League group behind PSV and Arsenal. Their away leg finished 0-0, but that gave no clue as to what was to come in the return match.

2-0 down at home at half time and seemingly heading out, Freiburg got one back through Sallai but even then, heading into injury time, it still seemed like the French side would prevail. Saillai, however, scored again, evening up the tie two minutes into injury time, and then Michael Gregoritisch scored the winner in extra time, taking them through to their next date with us.

It’s easy to mark us as favourites for this tie. I mean, two wins yes, but we also know their team, we have the players to win, and they’ve had to come through an extra game. However, without wanting to sound glass half-empty, a note of caution is needed I think.

Looking at the stats, I’d say that we’re both having quite similar seasons. At the time of writing, Freiburg aren’t troubling the higher reaches of the Bundesliga, sitting in 9th place, 10 points off fifth and Europa League qualification. Relatively speaking, in the Premier League we’re around the same position. It’s not as if we are going great guns in the league while they’re struggling.

Form is a concern for them – at the time of writing their away form is pretty abysmal, having lost eight out of 12 matches and losing the last four. Home form is better, but still inconsistent: at the same point of the season, after 24 matches, they’d won two out of five and no wins in the last couple of matches.

As of the start of March, they hadn’t won a football match since January 20th – so no manager of the month award for Christian Streich in February, then. Again though, you can see the similarities with us. Up until the Brentford match, we hadn’t won a single match in 2024, so arguably our form has been worse.

It was a relief to see Bowen back amongst the goals against the Bees, and also the return to action of Paqueta, who makes such a difference, but to be really honest, if you were going on these stats alone, there really isn’t much to choose between these sides. They have hope. Freiburg’s 2000th Bundesliga fixture saw second-placed Bayern Munich visit the Europa-Park Stadion on March 1, and Freiburg came away with a creditable 2-2 draw and played well, especially in the first half.

This, and their Lens comeback, suggests that there is fight amongst their side. With the goalscoring of Sallai, Grifo and Gregoritsch, and the steel of Nicolas Hofler, who’s their most booked player, they are capable of winning this tie if we’re not on it. Captain Christian Gunter – who netted against Munich – wasn’t happy that we are meeting again so soon, but is hyped up: ‘I wasn’t there for the last game, but I will be this time. We can go there full of confidence. It’s not out of the question that we’ll advance and get to face a new opponent.’

So, they have a chance. But what of us? As group winners, the away leg is first and we will need to be on our guard. Any kind of a result there and of course you would mark us down as favourites, particularly if our big players are fit – we should be good enough to do the job at home. However, a defeat of any sort introduces potential jeopardy.

A lot of West Ham fans are confident, and I do think we are the favourites for this tie. However, I do think it’ll be a lot closer than our results against them in the group stage suggest.

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