Europa League embarrassment has wandered out of West Ham’s collective memory. Perhaps that is the advantage of failing before the Premier League season even gets underway; it is easily forgotten.
The Hammers have now dusted themselves off from losing five of their opening six Premier League games and are ready to take on all-comers once again. The spirited displays of their successful 2015/16 season are close to returning, as a talented squad begins to creep up the league table. Unbeaten in three league games, including a dramatic late winner against Sunderland, Slaven Bilic’s side are resembling the team that was expected to shine this season.
With relegation unlikely to be a realistic threat for a team of the Hammers’ strength, silverware or European qualification is the aim. Last year Europa League qualification was gained through their league position, this year it could be through cup success. Facing Chelsea in the last 16 with home advantage, Bilic’s side must see victory as a realistic, achievable aim – just like the League Cup itself. The subsequent ticket to the Europa League would give the club another opportunity to replace the memories they currently have of the competition, too. But more than that, their first trophy since the 1980 FA Cup.
Everything about West Ham under David Gold and David Sullivan has been about ambition. Ambition to compete in the top six, ambition to grow the club financially and, perhaps most vitally, ambition to win trophies. They have the squad to be a genuine contender and the club is desperate for major silverware. Just one year after that last cup victory, in 1981, they made it all the way to the League Cup final, but despite lifting three FA Cups, they have never lifted English football’s secondary domestic knockout trophy.
Moving to a new stadium, a lack of fitness, and various other factors were blamed for the Irons’ dismal start to the season. Yet we are gradually seeing the team turn it around. Performances have improved and the results will eventually become something more than squeaked one-nils as the last two league games have been. It is now a whole month since West Ham lost a game of football.
Chelsea might be the most threatening side to play in the country right now, particularly off the back of their thrashing of Manchester United, and it could be a make or break for West Ham in the short-term. Success against a bitter rival will take them within touching distance of a trip to Wembley, but the risk of a defeat – even a heavy one – looms large. A poor result may set Bilic’s side back and undo the confidence earnt in their recent successes, while victory could be the springboard to another stellar campaign.
The match has everything to be a classic. The London derby rivalry, the excitement of a night match at the London Stadium and two teams who will see the EFL Cup as possibly their best chance of silverware this season. West Ham’s season will not be a disaster should they get knocked out, although it could have consequences that impact more than just their League Cup fate.