Fine margins make Europa League a fascinating test of West Ham’s strength

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 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

As West Ham begin their first-ever European group campaign in Zagreb tonight, the question is whether participation in the Europa League will accelerate or reverse their progress under David Moyes.

Declan Rice, Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen are among the players who could rise to the challenge of playing in Europe for the first time and find a whole new level.

As right-back Vladimir Coufal, a veteran of Champions League football with Slavia Prague, explained yesterday, many top players prefer the rhythm of playing three times a week, and European football could further solidify West Ham’s improved mentality under Moyes and make them an even tougher opponent, particularly in the biggest games.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

Conversely, the Hammers would not be the first club to find their squad stretched to breaking point by fighting on an extra front and subsequently slump back down the League table.

“We’ve seen plenty of teams who it hasn’t worked for,” Moyes acknowledged last night. The manager’s record at Everton offers reasons for optimism but also demonstrates the fine margins at play. His Toffees side bettered their sixth-place finish in 2006-07 the following season alongside their first Europa League campaign proper, but two years later dropped three places to eighth following their second experience of the group stage, albeit with just three fewer points in the League.

West Ham’s challenge over the summer was to strengthen Moyes’s squad to compete on extra front, particularly after injuries to key players, notably Rice, were significant in derailing their Champions League push.

Despite missing out on Jesse Lingard, the manager has been encouraged by the club’s late summer business, and Kurt Zouma is expected to make his debut at centre-half here in Zagreb, while playmaker Nikola Vlasic, formerly of Dinamo’s rivals Hajduk Split, is set for a mixed reception if he makes his first start for his new club.

Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola and midfielder Alex Kral, meanwhile, are expected to remain in reserve for what Moyes considers the toughest game of the group, which also includes Rapid Vienna and Genk.

“They will have no difficulty in adjusting, I feel as if we’ve made additions which can actually affect the first team,” Moyes said. The manager nonetheless faces a difficult balancing act in picking his side for Europe and the next few days should provide an insight into his thinking, with Manchester United set to test West Ham’s unbeaten start to the season on Sunday.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

The likes of Rice, Antonio, Coufal and Tomas Soucek will want to play in Europe, and feel they have earned the opportunity, but Moyes will occasionally need to save their legs.

“The boys did an incredible job to get us here, so they need an opportunity to show that, but I’ve not brought in [new] players just to stand back and watch,” Moyes said. “We’ve got six games in this tournament, so I’ll know better by the end of it, but probably in the early days I’ll be trying to find the right team at the right time to fit in with the Premier League fixtures.”

One dilemma for Moyes at the Stadion Maksimir, where Tottenham were humiliated 3-0 last season, is whether to hand captain Mark Noble a first start of the campaign.

The 34-year-old joined the manager for last night’s pre-match press conference, normally an indicator of involvement, but in this case the club may have put forward “Mr West Ham” to reflect the significance of the occasion.

“It would be an incredibly proud moment for me,” Noble said of potentially captaining the side in Europe, although Moyes will be wary of letting heart rule head.

Starting Noble would either mean breaking up the midfield pairing of Rice and Soucek, or pushing him forward at the expense of Bowen or Pablo Fornals, which has rarely worked.

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