In an impressive night of football, West Ham beat Dinamo Zagreb 0-2 in the Europa League.
The Hammers played with a confidence and assurance that you’d expect from European veterans, not a club taking part in their first European campaign since 2007 (their two Europa League runs since then have ended before the group stages). The whole team played well, of course, but the prosperity of the win was built on West Ham’s incredible spine.
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Watching West Ham negotiate an away game with more nous than Manchester United was definitely amusing, and especially so as Declan Rice was one of West Ham’s best players. The midfielder has long been linked with joining United, and there were rumours a transfer would happen this summer. European Champions Chelsea were also said to be interested.
Yet Rice is still in East London and is leading them with confidence in the Europa League. Rice got stuck in, shielded his defence from much of the worst Zagreb pressure. He was always ready to block the path to goal and help his defenders keep a sparky attack under control.
Declan Rice's game by numbers vs. Dinamo Zagreb:
98.2% pass accuracy
54 passes attempted
53 passes completed
5 ball recoveries
4 duels won
2 take-ons attempted
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 16, 2021
And of course Rice gave us the goal of the night when he burst up the field to score a sensational second goal. The midfielder surged forward to snatch possession back, shrugged off a midfielder like a parent would a rowdy toddler, and then just kept on running, peeling in from the left flank and slotting the ball underneath the goalkeeper with his weak foot. A supreme, sensational strike.
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But Rice was just one of the three spinal studs for the Hammers. Up-top Michail Antonio was the man yet again. The 31-year-old from Wandsworth is really coming into his own as a late bloomer. He’s not just a physical force of nature, but a technical talent with great skill and a genuine eye for the goal.
The way Antonio scored the opener, pouncing on a loose pass to run around the goalkeeper and casually slot the ball in with the outside of his weak foot despite the pressure of defenders chasing back showed his new maturity. And beyond the goal, Antonio just led the line so well, always driving forward and keeping Zagreb living in fear of what he might do. He created more chances than anyone else on the pitch, too.
Finally the base for West Ham’s comfort, the reason they were able to hold Zagreb at arm’s length and avoid the kind of hurricane comeback that knocked Spurs out of the Europa League last season, was new signing Kurt Zouma.
West Ham have won their first European game – excluding qualifiers – since 1999.
The Irons beat Osijek in Croatia. 😏 pic.twitter.com/hTovxzh5uQ
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 16, 2021
West Ham have done well with various unheralded centre-backs over the years, but they’ve not had a genuine bonafide stud back there. Kurt Zouma is that stud. A former Premier League title winner; his only flaw at Chelsea was not being one of the favoured names; in terms of quality there’s not much he can’t do, especially in a team playing with a deep block as West Ham were.
Zouma casually dropped 6 clearances and 3 interceptions, both team-highs, to keep Zagreb away from Lukasz Fabianski’s goal. He was just effortlessly solid and along with Rice and Antonio forms such a solid spine up the West Ham side. That kind of spine allows David Moyes a solid team around them without worrying that they will lose the middle of the pitch.
How far can West Ham go? Time will tell, but with a spine that good don’t be surprised if they go quite far indeed.