LONDON — With half of their group stage left to play a spot in, the Europa League round of 16 is already within touching distance for West Ham after a 3-0 win over Genk at the London Stadium.
After three games, West Ham have maximum points to their name, seven goals scored and none conceded. Results elsewhere mean all three of Genk, Rapid Vienna and Dinamo Zagreb have a six-point gap to make up on David Moyes’ side. A win and a draw from their next three games is the maximum they need to guarantee top spot in Group H, and with it a bye through the first knockout round of this reshaped competition.
The Hammers were hardly at their vintage best in open play, but scarcely needed to be against a Genk side unable to deal with the threat they posed from dead balls, Craig Dawson and Issa Diop scoring headers either side of halftime before Jarrod Bowen added gloss to the scoreline with a driving run through a ramshackle defense.It is nothing if not helpful for West Ham that, however difficult they might find it in open play, they need only manufacture an opportunity to put a dead ball into the box to have a realistic chance of scoring. Genk had had more than their fair share of warnings before the interval. Tomas Soucek had drawn a fine save from Maarten Vandervoordt midway through the half, clambering so assertively over his defender that a lengthy stoppage in play was required for treatment. Soon after, Dawson managed to get ahead of Jhon Lucumi but could not get over the ball to direct his header goalwards.
In short, Genk had been warned. Yet they still allowed Dawson a run-up to meet Aaron Cresswell’s corner from the left. His connection was not all that assertive, but the combined efforts of Vandervoordt and captain Bryan Heynen on the line could not keep the ball from the top left corner, the latter perhaps getting in the way of his goalkeeper’s attempts to block the shot.
The goal was a generous reward for a rare moment of attacking quality by the Hammers to win the corner in the first place. Unsurprisingly the impressive Declan Rice was at its heart, his through ball finding Jarrod Bowen in space just outside the area. As the move progressed out to the left he darted through the middle, meeting Cresswell’s cutback with a smart near post flick that drew a save out of Vandervoordt.
Genk’s goalkeeper had perhaps enjoyed a quieter start to events than his West Ham counterpart with Alphonse Areola struggling to put together a convincing case for why he should be preferred to Lukasz Fabianski for Sunday’s game against Tottenham. His kamikaze defending of a corner handed the visitors their best chance of the half, Paul Onuachu winning the header ahead of the France goalkeeper but seeing his effort drift just wide of the far post.
Perhaps spurned on by Moyes’ comments prematch that West Ham had not considered a move for him, Onuachu set about proving he could be quite the handful for Premier League defenders. Few will get the joy against Dawson and Issa DIop that he did in his best moments. Meanwhile, the Hammers’ high defensive line offered the dangerous Junya Ito chances to burst in behind. A little cumbersome off his line, Areola only just beat the right winger to a ball over the top in the 14th minute, an opportunity that had come just after Theo Bongonda had put the ball in the net.
Ito had let the dart down the right, cutting the ball across goal for Onuachu, whose scuffed shot was headed in by Bongonda. Assistant referee Aleksandr Radius handed the Hammers an almighty reprieve when he raised his flag, having correctly judged that Genk’s Japanese forward was offside in the build up.
There were issues to the West Ham defense. They just weren’t as glaring as those in Genk’s. Against one of the most effective set-piece teams in Europe, they seemed to be operating in a zonal-marking system that did not require their defense to attack the ball. All Issa Diop needed to do was roll to the near post to flick home the Hammers’ second. A shellshocked defense offered no resistance moments later as Bowen drove through them, his low shot deflecting off Vandervoordt and into the net.From then on, all that was required was for Moyes to shuffle his deck with an eye on Sunday’s derby against Tottenham. Michail Antonio had already been spared any exertions; Rice and Cresswell swiftly departed with the three points secured. At this rate, it will not be long before they can leave Thursday nights to West Ham’s fringe players and youngsters (that particular trend began in the 89th minute here as academy graduate Daniel Chesters came on for his debut). For newcomers to the European stage, this team seem to know exactly what they’re doing.