hen David Moyes was reminded of West Ham’s painful record against Romanian opposition yesterday, he did not hesitate to point out that his own is not much cop either.
It was back in 2005 that Moyes led his Everton side into the UEFA Cup, having lost narrowly to Villarreal in Champions League qualifying, only to be swiftly knocked out of the second-tier competition, too, after a 5-1 away thrashing by Dinamo Bucharest.
A decade later, West Ham, then managed by Slaven Bilic, fell to little-known Astra Giurgiu in qualifying for the Europa League, before somehow managing to repeat the exact same feat the following year.
Times have changed for both Moyes and West Ham. The Scot’s Toffees were back on the continent for the first time in a decade at the time of their Romanian debacle, while the Hammers’ double-dose saw their absence from a European group stage extend until Moyes himself ended it last term.
Now, they begin a second successive campaign in European competition proper with this evening’s opener against FCSB, and where the talk from Moyes a year ago was of wanting to still be playing on Thursday nights the other side of Christmas, that now feels like a minimum requirement.
Last year’s run to the semi-finals of the Europa League, backed up by a summer of ambitious spending, have put substance behind the club’s long-stated aim of establishing a regular European presence. To hear Moyes talking of the group stages as a minor inconvenience yesterday was to note how expectations have changed, not merely because the Europa Conference League represents a step down from last year’s escapades.
“The group stage is never the bit that makes you go, ‘Great, I’m looking forward to the games,” said Moyes. “But everybody is hoping to qualify for the knockout games, which were more exciting last season.”
Yet, progression might be no cruise, after a draw that could have been harsher but much kinder, too. Anderlecht and Silkeborg each finished third in their domestic leagues last term, while the name of tonight’s opponents might mean more had it not been changed from Steaua Bucharest after a long-running legal dispute in 2017. Still, the club lists a European Cup and 26 league titles among its historic return.
There is also the fact that Moyes will have to prioritise and juggle, with his side — along with the better-resourced Premier League big six — in action every three or four days between now and the World Cup.
The likes of Maxwel Cornet and Flynn Downes are expected to be handed more frequent opportunities, having had limited action since their summer arrivals, as are those like Manuel Lanzini, who have been usurped by Moyes’s recruitment. There may also be openings for youngsters like Harrison Ashby.
For now, Moyes seems likely to name relatively strong sides, perhaps mirroring the half-and-half strategy employed to good effect last term. Having been burned by Romanian opposition before, neither he nor West Ham will be taking anything for granted.