Two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of tactics and what appeared to be a naivety in the way West Ham approached their first leg Europa League tie against the Maltese team Birkirkara. With an injury time, fortuitous goal being the only thing that separated the two teams as they headed for Malta, there was an assumption that The Hammers would raise their game on the night and comfortably progress. After all, no English team had ever lost to a Maltese side in European competition, and the odds on a West Ham defeat were still as long as South Eastern Trains running my train on time for a week. But West Ham once again showed their lack of discipline, and what appeared to be once again a lack of preparation. Tomkins became the second West Ham player in this season’s competition to be sent off for an “off the ball” incident, with Noble incredibly lucky not to follow him for some pathetic, childish behaviour, mocking Birkirkara’s Fabrizio Miccoli for his weight (all captured on camera)…Miccoli’s response was to score the only goal of the game.
Fortunately, the only credit (bar the support from the fans) The Hammers could take from the game was their ability to take penalties meaning they progressed into the Third Qualifying Round by the skin of their teeth. Drawn to play Romanian side FC Astra Giurgui you would expect Bilic to have learnt his lesson, prepared correctly and told the team to keep their discipline..right.
Once again the fans took advantage of the £10 tickets. There is a lesson here for all clubs. Whilst it has been nearly a decade since the fans tasted European football, it is clearly the right thing to do to bring in potential new fans or those simply priced out of the Premier League games. Two interesting side points to this. Despite marketing the fact (to death already) that this is the Club’s last season at The Boleyn, the first two home games have not yet sold out despite being on general sale. Perhaps it is the fact that the cheapest ticket is £42 (and £25 for an Under16), or that potentially the games may move from their 3pm on a Saturday slot due to progress in the Europa League. The second will be the crowd for the friendly game on Sunday versus Werder Bremen. The last pre-season friendly has traditionally been played at The Boleyn, always versus a foreign side and nearly always for some strange-named cup. This Sunday it is the Betway Cup (Last season West Ham beat Sampdoria in the Marathonbet Cup) with ticket prices £20 for Adults (£15 for STH) – it will be interesting to see how many will come to that game.
Bilic shuffled his team around for this game against FC Astra with new signings Angelo Ogbonna and Dimitri Payet coming in for their home debuts, whilst James Collins replaced the suspended James Tomkins. In midfield youngster Reece Oxford was given another chance after performing so well in the first round against the Andorrans. The Romanians had filled their section of the stadium, their number boosted by locals from London. They are on an upward trajectory thanks to the investment in the club by owner Ioan Niculae, who bought the club in 2010 and moved them from Ploiești to Giurgiu in 2012. Whilst this was potentially the biggest game in their history, they weren’t coming to London just to make up the numbers.
West Ham United 2 FC Astra Giurgui 2 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 30th July 2015
It was as if West Ham had learnt nothing from the four games already played in this competition in the end and the boos that echoed around the stadium at full-time suggested that the fans felt the same. Yes you could put it down to a “bad day in the office” but that would be the third bad day in a row with no idea how to make it better. The icing on the cake was Bilic’s dismissal from the technical area near the end. Quite why he got himself is a mystery in a game which wasn’t dirty nor did the officials get much wrong. Worrying early signs of a temperament issue?
Two-nil up and in control of the game and we f@#k it up…royally. It could have been worse I suppose. We could have lost. But the complete lack of discipline, tactical awareness and reliance on a striker that gives us all hope we could still play in the Premier League lays bare the fact the Hammers simply got this all wrong, again.
The first half domination was plain to see as corner after corner was delivered into the box. It wasn’t a question of if but when they would score. Valencia finally broke the deadlock with a smart header before departing on a stretcher after a nasty fall. With Carroll on permanent sick leave and Sakho still suspended from his lack of discipline in Andorra, the only real option was Maiga. That is worrying for the season ahead. Still, if we need an attacking midfielder we are fine – we can field a full XI of those at the moment as the club seem reluctant to sell any of them.
The second half started well with Zarate dancing through the defence before slotting home a fine second goal for The Hammers. Then it all went wrong. Yellow’s for Noble (no surprise), Payat and Collins as the West Ham domination failed to materialise into any further changes. Then Collins picked up a second yellow and off he went. Three red cards in five games. Whilst there is irony in the fact of how we got into the competition, it more importantly shows the lack of discipline and awareness of how playing European opponents differs from Premier League teams.
Within minutes the Romanians were back in the game when Boldrin’s stunning strike from distance cannoned off Adrian’s bar and over the line. Many of the West Ham fans could not help applauding – it was a superb strike. The visitors grew in confidence, forcing corner after corner before Ogbonna headed into his own net ten minutes later to level the tie.
Despite having over 66% of possession, 15 shots on target and 15 corners West Ham travel to deepest, darkest Romania in a week’s time knowing they have to out score their opponents. A draw will see The Hammers exit the competition and potentially the last chance to play in Europe for a very long time. That regret may take a while to sink in.
So how do they prepare for next week? For starters, watch this game time and time again. Look at how the Romanians exposed the defensive weaknesses after the loss of O’Brien in the first half and Collins in the second. Fortunately Sakho will be available but unless he gets the service from the midfield it will be tough. Payat showed some promise but he is a player used to playing with more intelligent footballers around him. And please, no more red cards!