West Ham have secured top spot in their Europa League group with a game to spare thanks to a comfortable 2-0 win over Rapid Vienna in the Austrian capital on Thursday night.
That is important for two reasons. Firstly, it gives the Hammers breathing room ahead of what will be a busy December and January in the Premier League, Carabao Cup and FA Cup. Secondly, it secures them a bye past the first knockout round of the Europa League.
There were doubts before the season over how well West Ham would cope with the Premier League/Europa League balance. Other clubs have typically struggled in the past, with the addition of European football to their schedule adversely affecting their domestic form.
If anything, David Moyes’ Hammers have been even better in the Premier League this season than last, threatening to upset the status quo by challenging for a top four place.
Moyes has been able to rotate his team in Europe – Thursday night’s XI saw eight changes to the team that started against Wolves in the Premier League five days earlier – and will have that comfort even more on matchday six when nothing is riding on the game against Dinamo Zagreb.
It is one of 11 games that West Ham have between now and New Year’s Day, a little over five weeks. Every chance to rest key players without risking other results is vital.
What first place in the group also means in this season’s revamped Europa League is a ticket straight to the last 16 of the competition in mid-March.
Previously, the Europa League knockouts would begin in February with a round of 32. But with the advent of the Europa Conference League and the format change, there is now a Europa League preliminary knockout round that group winners get to skip.
The first knockout round will be contested by the Europa League group runners-up and the clubs that drop out of the Champions League. West Ham and the other group winners will be waiting in the next knockout round once the herd has been thinned out, also giving them almost a month longer in which they can focus on domestic commitments before thinking about Europe again.
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