LONDON — The light show. The flame cannons. The purple and blue cards in the Billy Bonds stand bearing the Irons slogan. It was the sort of night that West Ham owners David Gold and David Sullivan had vowed to make a part of the fixture calendar in uprooting the club from the Boleyn Ground to Stratford. There is absolutely no reason not to celebrate this achievement, not least as it had been earned by 38 games of high-quality football by David Moyes’ side last season.
The sense of occasion had only been heightened in the days leading up to kick off as the club commemorated its most recent and only European triumph when the men who would go on to lead England to the World Cup 12 months later won the 1965 Cup Winners’ Cup in front of 90,000 fans at Wembley. Martin Peters, Bobby Moore and Sir Geoff Hurst had been immortalized outside West Ham’s new home as they were a few miles down the road in east London. The latter was on the pitch at halftime.
This was a big deal for West Ham.
And yet on the pitch this seemed by all accounts to be an extremely ordinary evening for the West Ham players. From kick off onward they set about imposing their gameplan on Rapid Vienna, bullying them in the air and on the deck on their way to a 2-0 win.
As had been the case in Zagreb, it was Declan Rice who proved to be West Ham’s match winner. He put the finishing flourish on a flowing move through the Rapid Vienna defense that saw Andriy Yarmolenko’s delicate chip behind the defense find Michail Antonio to square for the onrushing West Ham vice captain to score his second goal in as many games in this competition.
There were further chances to kill this game off for the hosts — Jarrod Bowen fired over after rounding the goalkeeper whilst Craig Dawson twice went close from headers — long before Said Benrahma got the goal his performance deserved with a smart sidefoot finish in added time. The boisterous Rapid Vienna fans who had made the trip to England had precious little to cling on to, their only real hope of success a penalty that was quickly and correctly overturned by VAR.
Six points from six with their hardest away trip already in the rearview mirror? This West Ham side may be in uncharted waters but their path through the Europa League looks to be a serene one.
This competition ought to hold its difficulties for West Ham. Hankook ingenues they may be but any team representing the Premier League on the European stage will, by and large, find themselves placed among the favorites in whichever tournament they are placed. A brief glance at the bookmakers’ odds puts these group stage rookies alongside Napoli in the top tier of potential champions. Opponents certainly treat them with a reverence that they do not face all that consistently in the Premier League.
Rapid Vienna set themselves up to hold out for a draw, ceding possession and challenging their hosts to break down narrow banks of defense. This is not how West Ham like to play. Under Moyes they have been their best as a counterattacking force, dropping deep and bursting forth like a coiled spring through the likes of Bowen and Benrahma. There was no chance the Austrians would allow the latter to do anything like that on home turf tonight. Every time the ball came his way he was tasked with beating two, perhaps more, white and green shirts.
He did more often than might be expected. He was aided by Nikola Vlasic, the nominal number 10 who would drift from flank to flank so as to double up on the Vienna full backs. Overlapping down the left the dangerous Aaron Cresswell, almost as effective from open play as he was over a dead ball.
In the seventh minute he fizzed a free kick from the left onto Rice’s head, the England international glancing the ball onto the far post. Later in the first half Craig Dawson would hit the other post as he rose high to meet a Cresswell corner. Any time the ball went near the West Ham center back he seemed destined to win the header; he should at least have hit the target from another set piece just before the interval. Vienna had no answer for Dawson in the air nor for Antonio, who rarely came out anything other than the victor from his duels with Leo Greimi and Kevin Wimmer.
There was the odd nervy moment as the game approached its climax. Marco Grull seemed to be playing for a penalty for the visitors in the 72nd minute, tumbling to the deck when Ben Johnson stuck a loose leg out. Tobias Stieler initially sided with Rapid but it only took a swift VAR referral for that decision to be overruled.
That aside, West Ham kept their opponents at an arm’s length from Alphonse Areola’s goal. The Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper had one save to make, a tame low drive from 30 yards out. His only cause for concern might be that if his teammates set up such a tight rearguard ahead of him he may have precious little chance to steal Lukasz Fabianski’s starting spot for Premier League games.
Without Antonio this side rather seemed to lack a reference point either for a spell of possession or a counter attack. Bowen pressed with energy and always seemed to be lurking, ready for a mistake from the visitors, but when the chance came to kill off the game he fired over the bar having done the hard part of rounding Paul Gartler. If West Ham have designs to go deep in this competition a back-up center forward should be high on their list come January.
And why shouldn’t they aspire to follow in the footsteps of the 1965 team? Whilst there are spots where the odd extra body could help Moyes was still able to rest his starting center backs, Tomas Soucek and Pablo Fornals whilst putting out a team that, on paper and on the field, was comfortably the better of its opponents. European football is back in east London. It may be here to stay for a while yet.