European football is upon us for the first time in a few years and not in a qualifier. Last season got us straight into the group stages and tonight we were looking to keep our place at the top of our group, after beating Zagreb on the road 2 weeks ago.
For those of us of a certain age, Rapid Vienna are a name we recognize, probably through Subbuteo or some other submerged memory of those days. That said they are perennial winners in Austria along with their bitter rivals Austria Vienna.
From where I parked, I happened to wander past a tracksuited Kevin Nolan, which was a first, just bumping into players and staff outside the ground !
On a slightly rainy evening, a near full house came to watch our first home game in this tournament since 2016, but hopefully this time around we are not using the tournament as a training exercise. Our team wasn’t the second string but wasn’t quite the first team either. No starts for Soucek, Bowen, Fornals, Zouma, Ogbonna or Fabianski. Noble partnered Rice in the midfield, Johnson came in for the injured Coufal (and Fredericks). Vlasic kept his starting position, and Dawson and Diop started in their usual midweek formation.
The ground was full, including the away end, and the visiting supporters were in full voice of a style that unfortunately doesn’t happen in the premier league these days. Apparently, these fans have a history of trouble, but they seemed just happy to be there (more of that later) . And to begin with we had a light show and a little opening ceremony. Whether this is standard, I have no idea, but it made a change.
We were expected to win and win well. Rapid are on a very poor run this season, and we have only lost one game, and the game panned out that way despite no goals. Areola dealt easily with some speculative long range efforts whilst at the other end Dawson and Rice both hit the post from corners. About time we start getting that dead ball thing going again after last years record breaking season from the stationary start.
Strange things were afoot. Unknown to the players and officials, someone had taken on Yarma’s shirt and haircut and was masquerading as him. This was noticed when he cut inside a defender at one point and passed a great ball into space behind the defence that nobody ran into. This is because in the 3 seasons he has been at the club he has always had a shot in that position and he took the whole stadium by surprise. This interloper also seemed to like the fact there is more space in these games and took to passing along the midfield, collecting one-twos and getting about the pitch. This culminated in him swinging a sideways beauty across their defence to Antonio, who calmly passed it across the keeper for an on rushing Rice to tap it in. Amazing scenes, one nil to the cockney boys. So if anyone knows who this individual is and where the real Yarma is hiding please let me and the local authorities know.
This goal prompted the away end to spill out onto the concourse and start a charge towards the home fans in that corner. This had been precipitated by lots of plastic cup exchanges. Now if I try to take a cup in, I’m stopped and told in no uncertain terms that is not happening. This appeared to not be the case with our Austrian friends. Anyway there was some pushing and shoving and an exchange of one of those large water cooler bottles (no idea how that got there) and then the police turned up and it all went back to normal. What was interesting is that the stadium is usually has the corner tunnels out to the concourse blocked off when in Football mode, as they form huge holes in the seat rows, which aesthetically look pretty poor . That corner was fully open, which I assume was because trouble was expected and that would be the quickest way out for anyone under “escort”. The “trouble” was handbags at best but I notice the press have been quick to escalate it to “Violence mars West Ham win” levels
So on to the second half, which to be fair was very similar to the one against Zagreb. We huffed and puffed but couldnt get it done. Then the nightmare we all feared, Rapid were awarded a penalty. On first glance, having seen it from a good angle live, it looked a pen, and this was what the ref gave. However after some complaints from Declan and others, it was referred to VAR (and was reflected on the big screens in English and Austrian (apparently VAR is the same in both though ? ) .
The decision was turned over from what I found out later was a lack of contact. We were very fortunate and used that fright to bring on Fornals, Bowen, Soucek and Lanzini to close out the game . Benrahma had not been anonymous , but not as influential as in previous games but was trying everything to be involved. The improvement Soucek brought over Noble was very noticeable, allowing us to play way quicker in transition. Fornals and Bowen being more busy allowed us to defend further up the pitch, and close the game out. We had a couple of half chances late on and one fell to Benrahma , who in retrospect probably got his just rewards with a nice bent to the far post finish to equal the score in Zargreb.
2 games in and we have 6 points and have conceded no goals. We effectively have a game in hand at the top of group now. Nice work. Hopefully the full squad rotation is keeping everyone fresh. We have an in form Brentford this weekend, in a game that is our first test of how we are really positioned this season.
MOTM for me will be unusual in so much as Yarma (or his twin ?) played very well, and was a constant threat while on the pitch , and the ball to initiate the first goal was amazing.
Also big shout out the Rapid no 4. Aiwu. What a player. The tackle he put in on Bowen late on was easily the tackle of the night and maybe one of the best we will see all season. Shame we already have 3 first team right backs !