Freiburg vs West Ham: David Moyes seeking comfort in the familiar as Hammers eye European hat-trick

West Ham have beaten last-16 opponents Freiburg in the Europa League twice already during this year’s group stage (Getty Images)
West Ham have beaten last-16 opponents Freiburg in the Europa League twice already during this year’s group stage (Getty Images)

How long does novelty last? For a new song, perhaps six or seven plays. For a child blagging a day off school sick, somewhere around lunchtime tends to be the mark. And if you have just bought one of those fancy, garden pizza ovens, probably until the first time you try to clean it.

For West Ham and their European adventure, however, it seems the bar is set at a lofty two-and-a-half years. For Thursday night, David Moyes’s side go back to Black, returning to the fringes of the German forest to once again meet SC Freiburg, the first repeat opposition of their three successive continental tours.

For the 2,230 supporters who have braved the travel chaos soiling the German reputation for smooth running, there remains a sense of the new, October’s group-stage meeting having been played without away fans, who were serving a one-match ban. With industrial action planned on planes and trains across the country on Thursday and Friday, the real fun and games may yet lie in getting home.

For Moyes’s team, however, who won here in the group stage and again in the London Stadium reverse, this has the feel of a pure business trip.

It is testament to their growing stature in Europe that the Hammers will walk out on Thursday night at the Stadion am Wolfswinkel for the first leg of a last-16 tie they are firm favourites to win, the prize of a hat-trick of European quarter-finals on the line.

“For West Ham to be a European club in the first place was incredible,” Moyes said on Wednesday night. “I remember it greatly the game we qualified [against Southampton in May 2021], and the celebration because we were going on a European tour. We’ve been on it now for three years.

“We hope that our experiences over the last two seasons in Europe will help us. We’ve also been here already not too long ago — what effect that has on the game, I’m not sure.”

We’re back on form and I sense we’re getting back to where we should be

West Ham manager David Moyes

If the surroundings will hold no surprises, though, then perhaps Freiburg themselves might yet.

Ahead of this fixture five months ago, Moyes believed it would prove the toughest assignment in the group, but having won it 2-1, he later changed tack, deciding the visit to a fizzing Olympiacos — where the Hammers would lose by the same score — presented a more daunting task.

When Freiburg made the return journey to east London on the final day with top spot on the line, they disappointed again, beaten 2-0 without throwing a punch.

Consensus among the German media on both occasions, though, was that West Ham had not seen the best of Christian Streich’s side, and there is substance to support the claim.

The Bundesliga outfit won their four other group matches by an aggregate score of 16-3, including victory in Greece, and last month knocked out Lens, who had inflicted Arsenal’s sole defeat in the Champions League group stage before dropping into the play-off.

A 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich last weekend aside, Freiburg’s domestic form offers little to shout about, with no wins in six matches.

There again, until beating Brentford and Everton in the last fortnight, neither did West Ham’s. Moyes, though, believes his team have hit their stride again at the right time after a winless start to 2024.

“We had a period where we weren’t so good, but we’re back on form and I sense we’re getting back to where we should be,” the Scot said. “I want us to have another great run in Europe and I’d also like us to qualify for Europe again through the league.”

That marriage of domestic and continental form has so far proven elusive. Last year’s road to glory in Europe was travelled while a relegation fight was raging at home, while the season before, as the Europa League took priority, the Hammers tailed off badly in the league, winning just three times from the start of March to season’s end.

Then, from the higher base of competing for the Champions League places, the Hammers hung on to sneak into Europe again in seventh. Sat in that position already this time, and with more contenders than almost ever, the table will not be so forgiving.

A home meeting with Burnley sandwiched between the two legs, however, could hardly have been kinder, and Moyes is set to name his strongest available side on Thursday, with the hamstrung Maxwel Cornet the only player not to travel, though Nayef Aguerd is also an injury doubt.