What does Europa League failure mean for West Ham's future?
When West Ham were drawn for their final Europa League qualifier against Astra Giurgiu, there was a collective sigh of relief from Hammers fans. Defeated by the same club one qualifying round before last year, there were less reasons to be fearful this time around. 11th in their domestic league, with an owner in jail and no funds available, forcing them into selling their star players this summer, and a manager suspended for betting on football, the Romanian side would probably have been one of the first teams that fans would have picked if they had the option to.
When Mark Noble scored a penalty to put the Irons 1-0 up away from home in the first leg, it all looked like plain sailing. However, Denis Alibec equalised with only seven minutes left on the clock and despite intense pressure, there was no way through in the dying moments. One counter attacking finish on the stroke of half-time at the London Stadium later, and the club are out of the Europa League before the group stage for the second year running.
For Slaven Bilic there may also be some questions to answer. Whilst his job is far from under threat, his decision to rest several key players, like Mark Noble, for the second leg on Thursday night, proved vital in terms of the final result. Whilst this can be put partly down to injuries and Bilic being cautious in resting his most important men, this gamble could prove a costly one as for the second year running the Hammers underestimated their European opposition in the qualifying stage.
The lack of a plan B when the Irons could not break through proved frustrating, and whilst there was some superb goalkeeping on display, Jonathan Calleri, Enner Valencia, Michail Antonio and substitute Ashley Fletcher all could have and should have done better with their chances.
But what now for the Hammers? In their new 60,000 seater home, the London Stadium, they will make their debut season without any regular European football, putting dreams of visits from European giants on hold for another year.
The most devastating impact is likely to be on the club’s ambitions in the transfer market with Slaven Bilic already having confessed that the tie was of huge importance in relation to their ongoing transfer activity. The likes of Simone Zaza of Juventus have been linked, but having already failed to convince players such as Carlos Bacca, Alexandre Lacazette and Michy Batshuayi, with European football on offer, their job will now become even more difficult as they attempt to persuade targets to join the club.
Sure, the infrastructure is in place. The plans are there for the club to develop and continue their growth from yo-yo club between the Championship and the Premier League to a force in European football. Their ambition in the transfer market this summer has been admirable, but unfortunately misplaced. That could cost the club as they seek to add last minute additions to what is now a midtable Premier League side having lost one of their most important selling points.
On the field, the side are strong, but the squad looks shallow. Performances in the Premier League haven’t been convincing as of yet, and with a current injury crisis up front, there are few reasons for fans to be looking forward with optimism to Sunday’s trip to Pep Guardiola’s formidable Manchester City.
Having slipped up last year, West Ham could really not afford to do so again this time around. Astra have proven to be a real bogey team, but the Hammers, and, in particular, Slaven Bilic, should have learned from last term. That they didn’t shows naivety at best, arrogance at worst, and does not look promising for the future of the club. Financially, the club seems to be in good hands, but that, and their future transfer activity this summer, could rely on bosses having been astute enough not to gamble on qualification to the lucrative Europa League group stages.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Peter Miles.
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