Before a ball had been kicked I suggested the Europa Cup could prove a poisoned chalice for West Ham So it has proved and they would be better off slipping quietly out of the competition next Thursday in Romania before more damage is done.
Agreed I argued positives could be taken from the prolonged involvement in the qualifying process in that new manager Slaven Bilic could assess players in a competitive environment not just pre season friendlies and that might help the team hit the ground running in the Premier League.
The biggest fear was that a key player would suffer injury and that came to pass in Thursday’s 2-2 draw to Astra Giugio when after scoring Enner Valencia was stretchered off with a knee injury. The Ecuadorian striker looks like he will miss the opening phase of the season. Even if he doesn’t, the risks are clear.
Given the return leg, which involves an arduous trip to Romania, is just four days ahead of the PL opener at Arsenal Bilic now faces a difficult juggling act.
If West Ham are perceived to send a severely weakened team for the second leg they could face censure from UEFA but deep down I suspect Bilic and many of the players won’t be bothered in the slightest if this European adventure ends even before it’s properly started.
It would make sense to send a “second string team” out there but still one containing senior but now peripheral players such as Kevin Nolan and Matt Jarvis to give it credibility. And no doubt some players wishing to prove a point will give it a go out there .
But if the Hammers did win there is still a further play off round to play before the Europa League proper gets underway. And as Tottenham and Everton have found in recent seasons involvement in the “Thursday Night Cup” takes it toll and impacts on domestic form.
It’s not like the good old days of white knuckle rides in the knockout formats of the now defunct Cup Winners and UEFA Cups. If the tournament proper is reached it’s a slog and for English clubs awash with PL TV money not one which has the same attraction as for clubs from poor footballing nations who like the extra revenue a league format offers.
In the ramp up season to the Olympic stadium and a brave new world beyond West Ham simply cannot afford to have the life sucked out of them and be dragged into a relegation battle. So in that sense there is no shame in the circumstance for West Ham to adopt an attitude of “thanks for the ride it’s been a bit of fun, an eye opener too, but now it’s time to get off of the train”.
Let’s not forget participation in the first place was an unexpected “bonus”. And how ironic that having qualified via the “Fair Play League” the Hammers have had three players and the manager sent off in five matches making the team the “dirtiest” in the competition so far. Maybe that’s a sign that it’s time to pack up the tent.
Of course at 2-0 up against Astra things seemed a bit different but maybe the comeback by the Romanians to put them in poll position in the tie is a blessing in disguise.
For Astra, a team who competed in the Champions League a few season ago, playing in the Europa Cup proper is a big deal financially and a focal point of their season.
For English teams though the Europa League has often proved a beast of burden and it’s one West Ham can do without, allowing them to focus on the business of a top ten PL finish and bidding farewell to the Boleyn Ground on a high .