Even the most bubbly of seasons have their flat moments. Sometimes, though, it matters little and West Ham United’s defeat to the wily Croatians of Dinamo Zagreb didn’t prevent them progressing to the knockout stages of the Europe League, top of Group H.
They lost their final group game to a goal as early as the third minute but, although time was on their side, beyond goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, West Ham’s shotgun marriage of kids and squad players never looked capable of pulling back the deficit or staking a claim for more game time.
Having romped through the Group H of the Europa League, West Ham were unassailable in first place. For all his programme notes promise to “uphold the integrity of the competition”, manager David Moyes gave maiden first-team starts to Jamal Baptiste, Emmanuel Longelo and Sonny Perkins, alongside a slew of players from the outer fringes, with another untried trio on the bench.
In contrast, Dinamo Zagreb headed west in fourth place domestically, albeit with games in hand, and guaranteed of European progression if Genk failed to beat Rapid Vienna, even if the Croats lost in London.
After just three minutes, that seemed most unlikely when Daniel Stefulj took a short throw in 15 yards out. Mislav Orsic collected and, as Andriy Yarmolenko, Pablo Fornals and Alex Kral backed off, launched a curler past the startled Alphonse Areola from almost the same spot where Arthur Masuaku won Saturday’s game against Chelsea.
Lacking both experience and nous against worldly opponents, West Ham struggled to impose themselves. Dinamo fashioned a slew of first-half chances and soon Areola was charging out of goal to foil the lively Orisc, scorer of a hat trick against Tottenham Hotspur in last season’s tournament and then tipping over Luka Ivanusec’s blockbuster, while Arijan Ademi headed Stefulj’s cross just over.
Hope did sprout occasionally for West Ham. Local boy and converted midfielder Longelo was comfortable on the overlap and tidy in defence, while Fornals, the sole Premier League starter, was commendably committed, but Dinamo’s evening blossomed further at the break when they discovered Genk were losing.
Fornals’ reward was to be replaced by Said Benrahma at the break and heavy rain further dampened the spirits after it.
With Mark Noble and a suddenly revitalised Yarmolenko making inroads, West Ham’s cowed tyros began to assert themselves without causing too many palpitations for Dominik Livakovic in Dinamo’s goal.
The promise though, went unrealised. Dinamo reasserted themselves and they continued to created chances. Unmarked former Cardiff defender Kevin Theophile-Catherine volleyed Orsic’s corner over, while Orsic himself brought the best out of the overworked Areola with another almost perfect curler.
A far from happy Orsic was surprisingly replaced just after the hour and Dinamo began to hold what they had., but still West Ham struggled to seize the moment.
As the contest drew to its inevitable conclusion, the well-attended London Stadium began to thin and, late on, Moyes introduced two more debutants Freddie Potts (son of Steve and brother of Dan) and Keenan Forson. For them a night to remember for the rest of their lives. For everyone else of a claret and blue persuasion, one to forget as soon as possible.