After qualifying for the play-off stage of the UEFA Europa League last time around, West Ham United will no longer have to worry about that and instead will go straight through to the knockout stages in March after winning Group H, thanks to a 2-0 away win over SK Rapid Vienna on Thursday.
Only Craig Dawson, Tomáš Souček and Jarrod Bowen retained their places from the defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux five days earlier, as David Moyes made eight changes with Alphonse Areola, Vladimír Coufal, Issa Diop, Arthur Masuaku, Mark Noble, Manuel Lanzini, Andriy Yarmolenko and Nikola Vlašić all coming in.
Aaron Cresswell was included in the matchday squad but was dropped to the bench for the first time this season. Also amongst the substitutes were youngsters Ajibola Alese, Dan Chesters and Sonny Perkins.
With Austria currently in a national lockdown, together with West Ham fans being banned from attending the fixture, due to crowd disturbances earlier in the competition, the game was played without any supporters in the stadium.
Both teams needed a victory for different reasons and because of this, it was an open start to proceedings although the Hammers soon took control.
They had a great chance to go in the opening stages when Masuaku and Bowen combined Well with the Democratic Republic of Congo man setting up the winger. Bowen managed to meet Masuaku’s low cross but unfortunately sent it inches wide of the post.
The duo were determined to make an impact and seconds later, a similar move saw the former Hull City man go close again but on this occasion, his effort was blocked.
The visitors definitely had a foothold in the game and were still applying pressure. Yarmolenko and Lanzini played in Vlašić but unfortunately, when he received the ball on the edge of the area, he only succeeded in sending his shot over the bar.
Even when the home side did create an opportunity, they couldn’t find a way past a well-drilled West Ham rearguard, as Diop blocked an effort from Taxarchis Fountas from close-range, before the ball fell back to him but fortunately for the visitors, he missed the target again, as this one went just over the crossbar.
It was the same result for Yarmolenko when he was set up by Noble up the other end, as home goalkeeper Paul Gartler wasn’t troubled.
The intensity of the game may have dropped after the frenetic start but to be fair to the Irons, they were still trying everything they could to edge ahead. Coufal was next to have a go but Gartler produced a sharp reaction save to prevent him from breaking the deadlock.
Soon after, Kelvin Arase evaded the attentions of Dawson and tried a shot from a decent position but fortunately for the visitors, the Paris Saint-Germain loanee saved comfortably.
The Irons had numerous chances to take the lead earlier in the match but on thirty nine minutes, they finally seized their moment. Vlašić crossed for the unmarked Yarmolenko who managed to beat Gartler. I’m sure that the many West Ham fans watching from home would have been delighted.
The Ukrainian forward was involved again just before the break. Referee Sergey Ivanov had no hesitation in awarding the East Londoners a penalty. Yarmolenko produced some clever movement in the box and was brought down by home skipper Maximilian Hofmann. Noble stepped up and with a degree of confidence, thumped the ball into the net and past a helpless Gartler to claim his first ever goal for the club in a proper European competition.
At half-time, the visitors knew they were halfway to securing top spot in Group H with a game to spare.
The Hammers were once again on top at the start of the second-half and Bowen was again in the thick of the action. Great play involving Vlašić and Lanzini set him up and he only had Gartler to beat but unfortunately, the goalkeeper blocked the effort with his legs.
The winger combined with Lanzini again shortly after and Gartler once again got there first and denied him what would have been an outstanding goal for his team.
Bowen seemed to have the majority of the opportunities in the second forty five minutes and the best came on the hour mark.
A mistake from Filip Stojković presented him with another chance. More great combination play, this time involving both Yarmolenko and Souček saw the Czech’s initial effort saved by Gartler before he then sent Bowen away but his volleyed attempt was remarkably kept out by the player who made the initial error.
Bowen and Souček were removed from the action and replaced by Alex Král and Pablo Fornals, while Lanzini was also withdrawn and Saïd Benrahma entered the fray.
Fornals almost made an immediate impact when he got into a great position after Noble’s attempted cross was partially cleared. The Spaniard then tried a volley from close range only for Hofmann to make a last-ditch clearance.
Fountas should have pulled a goal back for the hosts but he again saw an effort go over Areola’s crossbar with the Frenchman untroubled.
West Ham wasted another golden chance to make sure of the three points as Vlašić was in acres of space but unfortunately, Benrahma couldn’t pick him out.
Dan Chesters recently made his debut in this competition and when Moyes made another double change on seventy seven minutes, it was the turn of Perkins to be given his senior debut with Vlašić making way, while Ryan Fredericks was also brought on to take the place of Masuaku.
Just minutes after they were both introduced, Fredericks nearly made it a perfect night for the youngster when he sent him through on goal but Gartler had other ideas and spoilt his big moment by making a outstanding save.
Still, it was a great night for the Irons, who will see European football return in March. For the immediate future though, West Ham will attempt to repeat their Carabao Cup heroics of last month and see if they can beat Manchester City for a second when they visit The Etihad Stadium in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon.