Croatia great Igor Štimac is expecting great things from the Irons in the Europa League this season starting in his homeland on Thursday evening.
The former Hammers defender will be in the crowd at the Maksimir Stadium when David Moyes’ side play their first-ever group-stage tie against Croatian First Football League champions and perennial European qualifiers Dinamo Zagreb.
Stimac was with the Hammers for a two year spell after joining from Hadjuk Split. He made 84 appearances at the centre pf outr defence scoring once against Newcastle United and establishing himself as a fans favourite.
Unsurprisingly, Štimac is greatly looking forward to watching his old club in action on home turf, 22 years after representing West Ham in a UEFA Cup first-round tie at Osijek in August 1999.
And speaking to www.whufc.com he said: “Even when I was with West Ham we had a trip to Croatia, to Osijek [in the UEFA Cup first round in 1999], but it was kind of a different trip back then.
“Dinamo Zagreb is one of the best academies in the world, the biggest producer of professional footballers definitely, and one of the best sides in the market of selling young players and their factory of players is unbelievable.
“West Ham will have some problems, definitely, and they need to come out at Dinamo Zagreb’s stadium with authority, like they play in the Premier League – there is no difference to those games – and be patient, obviously.
“This Dinamo Zagreb side is not the same side which played last year. Every season is the same story in Croatia – you need to sell your best players to survive, to get the money into the club, then you need to make new signings and make the new team.
“They have five or six new players, but they still doing well. They are by far the best side in Croatia and they are also looking forward to this game.”
While Štimac believes Dinamo will represent tough opposition, he also believes West Ham’s hungry and improving squad has what it takes to make a mark not just in the Croatian capital, but on the competition as a whole.
“Obviously it’s a great achievement [to qualify for the Europa League] after having a fantastic season and expectations are huge,” said the 54-year-old.
“I can see even now, with a fresh good start to the new Premier League season, the team is looking really good and strong and my expectations are really high when we talk about West Ham this season in the Premier League also, not only in the Europa League.”
“Obviously, when you have a good start to a season, everything suddenly changes for the better, confidence rises up in the dressing room and that’s the most important thing you can get,” he observed.
“Now it seems to be really good, going smoothly, the team is getting stronger from season to season and becoming one of the forces in the Premier League also.
“No-one likes to play against West Ham United.”
One player who will definitely help the Hammers’ chances in Zagreb is Štimac’s compatriot and fellow Hajduk Split academy product Nikola Vlašić.
He added: “He can do a lot, but obviously he needs to find a way to become part of the team as soon as possible
“It’s not an individual sport, so you need to adjust your individual qualities into the system. I am sure that David Moyes will find a way to make everything easier for Niksi, as we call him.
“I had many interviews when he signed for the Russian club and they were asking me about Nikola and all that and whatever I told them, it was the truth – if you stand by Nikola, if you have his back and if you take care of his confidence then he can do amazing things.