Fifteen years had passed since West Ham last played in a major European competition but, after 90 flawless minutes in Croatia, you wouldn’t have known it.
Trepidation and anticipation were in equal measure as the Hammers embarked on their Europa League adventure, the reward for their remarkable 2021/21 Premier League campaign.
West Ham, together with their 2,000 travelling supporters, set out to enjoy their big day on the continental stage but it quickly dawned that the Hammers could do more, much more.
A trip to Dinamo Zagreb, famous conquerors of Tottenham in last season’s Europa League, was without question West Ham’s toughest Group H assignment and a substantial interrogation of their European credentials, but it was an assessment they passed was consummate ease.
The predatory nature of in-form Michail Antonio produced the opening goal midway through the first half before Declan Rice sealed the victory with a sensational solo run and finish in the second.
The performances not only spoke volumes of the calibre of Premier League football but also for the progression the Hammers continue to take under David Moyes.
West Ham must grapple with juggling a Europa League campaign with the rigours of Premier League football but Thursday’s win in Zagreb has proven, irrespective of the challenges that will come their way, there are no bounds to what the Hammers can achieve in this new European era.
Talk about an opportunity missed.
Celtic arrived in Seville knowing they had failed to beat Spanish opposition away from home in European competition in their 18 previous attempts. But the visitors’ vibrant early performance completely belied that past history as they surged into a deserved 2-0 lead via Albian Ajeti and Josip Juranovic’s penalty.
But then came the missed opportunity in miniature when Claudio Bravo denied Jota. That save and missed chance proved the tie’s turning point because from that moment on Celtic simply crumbled as a rampant Betis scored four goals across 20 minutes either side of half-time. A missing defence and a missed opportunity in magnitude.
In mitigation, Celtic were not at full strength and their defence was patched up. But while the Hoops’ new centre-half pairing had the excuse of a lack of familiarity, most notably for the botched offside ‘trap’ leading up to Betis’ equaliser, the ease in which Betis were able to attack out wide was inexplicable. Where was the defensive intensity? Where was the teamwork?
True enough, there was no disgrace in this defeat. 4-3 thrillers should be celebrated not censured. Jota, regardless of his pivotal miss, was excellent. And Ajeti, who also won the penalty, was impressive. But Celtic’s attacking verve only made their defensive failures all the more frustrating and perplexing. Ange Postecolgou is very much in credit with the Celtic support and Celtic’s results in this competition won’t alter that sentiment. Celtic are a work in progress. But what Thursday night underlined is that while Postecolgou’s has plenty to work with, he also has a considerable amount of work to do.
When Harvey Barnes steered his low finish into the bottom corner to double Leicester’s lead and cause an explosion of noise inside the King Power Stadium, it appeared the Foxes were on their way to a memorable European victory.
It did not work out that way in the end, with Victor Osimhen’s double ensuring Napoli claimed a point they fully deserved on the balance of play. But the final result does not make Barnes’ contribution any less impressive.
The finish for the second goal was outstanding and so too was the cross to set up the first. Barnes has started the campaign relatively slowly but this performance suggests he is back up to speed.
It was cruel that one of the side’s best performers of last season had to sit out their FA Cup final triumph over Chelsea. Barnes may have even ended up in the England squad had it not been for the knee injury that curtailed his progress back in February.
But Brendan Rodgers has thrown him straight back into his side – Barnes has started all of their six games so far – and his contribution on Thursday was a reminder of what he showed last season – that he is one of the most effective wingers in the country.
Barnes looked understandably deflated as he left the pitch at the King Power Stadium. Leicester should have done more to hold on to their lead. But Barnes’ return to his best is a welcome boost for the challenges that lie ahead of them.
Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and accept the better side won.
So it was for Rangers this midweek. Steven Gerrard’s side didn’t hit the heights against Lyon, but neither did they perform badly. They simply lost out on the big moments: Karl Toko Ekambi’s incredible shot from distance, curling into the bottom corner; Ryan Kent’s turn and shot just before half-time, palmed away by Anthony Lopes; Connor Goldson’s clearance rebounding off James Tavernier and over the line.
Few who watched the encounter at Ibrox would argue with any suggestion that Lyon had a little too much assurance and class for Rangers. But it would also be easy to labour the point. Possession was more or less equally shared. Rangers had more shots than their opponents and Lyon scored twice with just three shots on targets. In a game of few chances, Rangers had a fair amount.
Sure, Rangers need a touch more class and a tad more quality. But football games are often decided on small margins and a little bit of luck can go a long way. Rangers didn’t have any go their way this midweek but one piece of fortune is that none of their next four Europa League matches are against Lyon, undoubtedly the toughest team in their group. If they can prosper against Brondby and Prague over the next month, the details – good and bad, fair and unfortunate – of this setback will be swiftly forgotten.
Tanguy Ndombele’s Tottenham career appeared to be over after he asked to leave the club in August but a move did not materialise and his starring performance in Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Rennes showed he still has plenty left to offer.
The midfielder, a £54m club-record signing from Lyon in 2019, had not played a single minute under Nuno Espirito Santo this season but looked determined to prove a point on his return at Roazhan Park.
Right from the start of the game, he could be seen twisting and turning away from Rennes defenders and driving through the midfield to create danger. If there was any lingering hangover from his unsettled summer, he did not show it.
His best moment came in the build-up to the opener, when he kept the ball in play with an ingenious backheel which allowed Spurs to spring forward on the attack.
It was a vital contribution and he was involved in the second goal too, cutting inside from the left-hand side and releasing Matt Doherty with a scooped, cross-field pass.
It was not all good. The 24-year-old was too easily beaten by Flavien Tait for Rennes’ equaliser, the lapse a reminder of the defensive shortcomings which have prevented him from holding down a place in the side over the last two years.
But at a time when Spurs are badly lacking creativity and spark – they only mustered two shots in Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace and rank second-bottom in the Premier League for chances created this season – Ndombele looks an obvious solution.