West Ham brighten up as European tour rolls on ahead of return to daily grind of relegation scrap
The narrative of this fixture always seemed likely to write itself, and so it proved: West Ham, having left the snow and their relegation woe in London, would lift spirits with some UV, vitamin D and another win on tour in Europe.
Despite a tepid start, perhaps a hangover from last weekend’s chastening experience at Brighton, and some late pressure from their unheralded Cypriot opposition, West Ham were ultimately comfortable winners here.
Michail Antonio’s first-half double — a fine glancing header and an uncharacteristic pearler — earned a 2-0 win that means only a result cataclysmic even by this season’s standards in next week’s return will deprive David Moyes’s side of a second successive European quarter-final.
There were further chances to kill the tie off — Antonio denied a perfect hat-trick by the post and substitute Lucas Paqueta thwarted one-on-one late on — but a clean sheet and a healthy lead marked a decent return for a team to whom little has come easy of late.
“If you’d given me 2-0 before the game, I’d have taken that,” Moyes agreed afterwards.
It is now nine wins out of nine across qualifying and the Europa Conference League proper this season for the Hammers, 50 per cent more than they have managed in the Premier League in a third as many games.
Self-deprecating chants of “West Ham are going down with a European Cup” may yet come to look prophetic in three months’ time, and if Moyes thinks fixture congestion is bad now, then goodness knows what he will make of the Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday grind, as his team try to balance another European campaign with 46 games in the Championship.
Pre-Christmas, nights like these provided a cheery distraction from what then seemed only a muddling domestic start, Moyes confident that the inevitable teething problems after a summer of transition would soon be resolved.
With less than a third of the Premier League season to go, however, and — to labour a gory metaphor — the Hammers’ gums still bleeding profusely, this win must prove something more.
Moyes’s side are just a point clear of the drop ahead of Aston Villa’s visit on Sunday, the latest in what has been a sporadic string of crucial home fixtures since the World Cup, with only four of 14 matches played at the London Stadium.
Wins over Everton and Nottingham Forest, and a draw against Chelsea, have delivered just about enough points to keep heads above the waterline and Moyes in a job, but none have marked the start of a prolonged upturn and Villa, under Unai Emery, arrive in substantially better health.
Pick your spot. 🎯
Pull the trigger! 🚀
Antonio bags his second of the night in some style! 🕺#UECL pic.twitter.com/x9cbnuXq9Z
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 9, 2023
The Everton and Chelsea results were part of a four-game unbeaten run that seemed to be building small momentum before being halted by a lifeless derby showing at Tottenham, against a Spurs side there for the taking.
A dizzying spell of four goals in 15 minutes to blow Forest out of the water was followed by a missed opportunity in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, and then that 4-0 mauling at Brighton.
Having heard travelling West Ham fans turn at the Amex, Moyes must have been grateful for the chance to establish some distance from that humiliation with a midweek Mediterranean escape. As for pulling off one to beat the drop, there is plenty of work to be done.