West Ham have secured the top spot in their Europa League group with one match left thanks to a comfortable 2-0 victory over Rapid Wien in the Austrian capital on Thursday night.
It is important for two reasons. First, it gives the Hammers respite for what will be a hectic December and January in the Premier League, Carabao Cup and FA Cup. Secondly, it secures them a goodbye after the first knockout round of the Europa League.
There were doubts ahead of the season about how well West Ham would manage the Premier League / Europa League balance. Other clubs have usually struggled in the past, with the addition of European football to their schedule that negatively affected 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 spot.
Moyes has been able to rotate his team in Europe – Thursday night’s XI saw eight changes in the team that started against Wolves in the Premier League five days earlier – and will have that comfort even more on match day six when nothing rides in the match against Dinamo Zagreb.
It is one of 11 games that West Ham have between now and New Year’s Day, just over five weeks. Every chance to rest key players without risking other results is crucial.
What the first place in the group also means in the season’s renewed Europa League is a ticket directly to the 16 finals in the competition in mid-March.
Previously, the Europa League eliminations would start in February with a round of 32. But with the entry of the Europa Conference League and the format change, there is now a preliminary knockout round for the Europa League that group winners can skip.
The first knockout round will be competed by the group runner-up in the Europa League and the clubs that drop out of the Champions League. West Ham and the other group winners will wait for the next knockout round when the crew has thinned out, which also gives them almost a month longer as they can focus on domestic commitments before thinking about Europe again.
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