Astra Giurgiu is a name that still causes any claret-and-blue blooded Londoner to shudder with revulsion. Exactly a year ago, when Slaven Bilic entered European competition for the first time with West Ham, the Romanian minnows stunned the European scene by eliminating the Hammers over two legs.
A more forgiving West Ham fan may assert that this was perhaps a blessing in disguise, attributing much of Bilic’s impressive first season to the subsequent lack of distraction. Yet for a club that has sired some legendary greats, such as Sir Bobby Moore and Sir Geoff Hurst, losing to a team of such obscurity is nothing short of a monumental disgrace.
Under Slaven Bilic, West Ham will be facing glamorous, but very difficult ties if they can exact revenge on Astra Giurgiu. For the latest West Ham and Europa League odds, visit Matchbook.
Despite the unfortunate events of last summer, West Ham should have little difficulty in exacting sweet vengeance, but there is no place for complacency, having already lost an away leg (to Domzale) in the previous round of this year’s competition. On this occasion, Bilic faces Astra one round later than last year, and the victor proceeds directly to the group stage.
Sadly, West Ham’s UEFA coefficient reflects a team which has long been absent from meaningful European competition. Assuming that all of the seeded teams sweep the final qualifying rounds of both competitions in Europe, this low coefficient could have a negative knock-on effect.
In such a scenario, West Ham will be given the unenviable status of a Pot 4 team. Thus, Bilic’s men will be deprived of ‘gimme’ fixtures against the likes of Dundalk, instead facing the prospect of midweek trips to the San Siro or the Vicente Calderón.
So just how would the Hammers fare if those names were to be produced, and are those really the teams to avoid? The UEFA coefficient system identifies Schalke 04, Fenerbahce and Berner SC Young Boys as the most dangerous teams of each pot in such a scenario, but football is playing on grass – not paper – and the truth is, in many cases, very different.
POT 1: FC Schalke 04
Provided that all of the seeded teams at both levels survive their final playoff ties, FC Schalke 04 will be the highest coefficient-ranked team in the Europa League group stage. Even with the departure of winger Leroy Sane, Schalke have the capability to dominate the wide areas and provide excellent service to target man Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Huntelaar’s 16 goal haul in 2015-16 saw him crowned as the club’s top scorer, yet fellow strikers Eric Choupo-Moting and Franco di Santo were not far behind him in the goalscoring stakes. Respectively, they contributed nine and eight goals, which proved crucial in securing European football.
Prolific though Schalke may be in the second tier of Europe, they are bereft of a competitive clean sheet since 28th February, and were ultimately consigned to fifth place last season by a lack of consistency. While Schalke are adapting to life without Sane, West Ham are hailing the arrival of Ghanaian midfielder Andre Ayew, who enjoyed a strong debut season in the BPL last term.
Provided that Dimitri Payet and Michail Antonio stay, to combine with Ayew, West Ham fans will enjoy the most lethal attacks in living memory. Coefficients in this case are irrelevant – in truth, it is a disorganised Schalke team which should fear drawing West Ham from pot 4.
HARDEST POT 1 OPPONENT: Athletic Bilbao
EASIEST POT 1 OPPONENT: AZ Alkmaar
Inter Milan would normally be considered, but the Nerazzuri remain a team very much in transition. A recent 6-1 defeat to Tottenham is a prime indicator of the depths to which the men in black and blue have fallen, and their ability to withstand the newfound savagery of West Ham’s midfield is rightly questioned.
Athletic Bilbao stand out as a dangerous team in Pot 1. Barcelona and the two Madrid clubs were in a league of their own, but from fourth downwards, 2015-16 belonged to the Basque club. They won the same number of matches as recent UEL semi finalists Villarreal, and though they lost more games, Bilbao finished with the highest goal difference in that group.
Scoring just five goals fewer than Athletico Madrid also represented a huge positive for Bilbao in 2015-16, with Aritz Aduriz hitting the net 20 times in the league to establish himself as the sort of finisher that continental teams crave. In addition, Bilbao reached the quarter finals of last season’s Europa League, losing on penalties to eventual winners Sevilla.
AZ finished fourth in the Eredivisie last season, yet only narrowly avoided being sucked into the lower reaches of the top half. Though workmanlike, AZ’s wins in the previous round (against Greek minnows PAS Giannina) were not without room for improvement.
POT 2: Fenerbahce
Consistent appearances in Europe are not the only reason for Fenerbahce’s lofty standing. Last season saw Fenerbahce finish 2nd in the Turkish Superlig, with no less than 60 goals netted through a series of uncompromising performances. As such, Fenerbahce will be one team to avoid, especially with one look at the attackers at Vitor Pereira’s disposal.
Robin van Persie is arguably the biggest name in the squad, boasting nigh-unrivalled top flight experience. Though 33 now, the Dutchman’s eye for goal has not diminished, and his striking abilities are enhanced by the presence of Fernandão and Emmanuel Emenike, who complete what can be a deadly three-pronged attack.
HARDEST POT 2 OPPONENT: …Fenerbahce
EASIEST POT 2 OPPONENT: AA Gent
For reasons already well-documented, it would be a euphemism to say that the atmosphere in both meetings will be electric if Bilic’s men share a group with Fenerbahce. In particular, the atmosphere at the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium will be nothing short of terrifying for fans and team alike.
Identifying the easiest team in Pot 2 is a difficult task. AA Gent finished third in the Belgian Superlig last season, but had the ignominy of possessing the second worst goal difference in the top six. This is a stat which can only hinder a European campaign for Gent if shortcomings in attack remain unresolved.
POT 3: BSC Young Boys
The Swiss season is already underway, and BSC Young Boys have begun in impressive fashion. As far as Europe is concerned, Adi Hutter’s men look well placed to restore some lost pride. In their recent Champions League tie (third qualifying round), they overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit to Shakhtar, winning 3-0 in Bern to earn a final qualifying round tie with Borussia Mönchengladbach.
BSC Young Boys had an impressive run in 2014-15, before suffering a 7-2 aggregate defeat at the hands of Everton in the Round of 32. However, Azerbaijani side Qarabag made a mockery of Young Boys’ superior coefficient in 2015-16, strolling to a 4-0 aggregate win in the playoff round. This inconsistency only serves to cast doubt on the team’s European credentials.
HARDEST POT 3 OPPONENT: Celta Vigo
EASIEST POT 3 OPPONENT: FC Zürich
Under manager Eduardo Berizzo, Celta have developed into a team that plays with a high tempo, yet possesses sufficient composure to win by single goals and see games out. It was this trait which enabled Celta to qualify for this season’s UEL, and even the strongest teams will underestimate at their peril. Unlike BSC Young Boys, Celta have also improved consistently as a team.
FC Zurich has the lowest coefficient in this hypothetical third pot, but the main reason for their identification as the easiest team is simple. Zurich won the domestic trophy, but suffered league relegation, weakening the squad ahead of this campaign.