Just how far can West Ham go in the Europa League?
West Ham relied on some quality penalties (best of all from Joey O'Brien) to get them through - Via Reuters

West Ham needed to roll the dice in a penalty shoot-out to get past the Maltese League's third placed team, FC Birkirkara in the Europa League.

Despite James Tomkins' late winner at Upton Park last week, it was the Maltese side who pushed West Ham the hardest, and looked throughout the evening to be the more likely to go through to the next round after opening the scoring early on in the first half. 

Despite this set-back, West Ham regrouped at half time and looked slightly better, they were actually finding teammates with passes, yet the urgency and snap was still desperately lacking - it was a game that when watching, anyone could have bet their house on it going to extra time and penalties.  

What was learnt?

So, with West Ham struggling to get past the Maltese minnows, can their chances in this years Europa League be taken seriously? With a third, and final, qualifying tie now set up between the East London outfit and Romania's FC Astra Giurgiu - the club should definitely be looking to get things wrapped up much more easily compared than their previous two qualifying ties again FC Birkirkara and FC Lusitans. 

Calculated Risk 

It is evident that the club are aware they don't have the luxury of world class players throughout the entire squad, so, they are trying to reserve the majority of the first team for a 'normal' pre-season, thus freeing up the youngsters and fringe players to get an equally as good a shot at a preseason, and the chance of impressing manager Slaven Bilic.  

Why then is it, that West Ham have struggled to stroll through these games as, perhaps, many thought they should do? After the opening tie against Lusitans, many were quick to write off the cumbersome approach to the fact that the players hardly had an off-season to relax, but, the same went for the youngsters - who were the ones who have impressed throughout the two ties, rather than the seniors!  

The risk to entrust players who have failed to live up their ability already is one of a fair coaching team, however, out of those who are perhaps being given their chance to win over the manager only Matt Jarvis has done anything of note out of the senior players. Players such as Kevin Nolan, Joey O'Brien, Modibo Maiga, Mauro Zarate and even Mark Noble have been well below par for such seasoned players.  

With only one more qualifying tie to go, it will be interesting to see if Bilic fancies using a stronger XI in the Home leg to try and get the game over and done with be the second leg, merely to solidify the club's passage into the play-off games prior to entry into the group stages.  

Showing So Far 

Going off of West Ham's four games so far in their route to Europa League qualification, they have only scored five goals over four games, with three of those goals coming in the first qualifying game! However, they have only conceded one goal, with Italian international Fabriccio Miccoli the scorer.

The positive side of it is that, whilst West Ham haven't looked like scoring masses of goals over these four games, they have never really looked worried at the back, even with Tomkins sent off last night, the back four was shifted around and there were no real worries on Adrian's goal for the rest of the night.

Something which may well help West Ham on the front-foot though is that Enner Valencia has returned to the club after competing in the Copa America and has started training, so, should be available for next weeks game at Upton Park when Astra Giurgiu visit.

The club will also hope that recent loan signing Argentine-attacking midfielder Manuel Lanzini, will play a part in the club's passage through to the next stage of qualifying.

With Diafra Sakho banned, Andy Carroll still training through his rehabilitation programme, Zarate not an out and out striker, Elliot Lee only young (although he did score the only goal of the Away leg against Lusitans) - this is perhaps why the club have failed to impress so far. 

Perhaps rather ironically, the players have succumbed to five yellow cards and two red cards over the course of the four games. It is ironic, because, the club were only put forward for the qualifying rounds due to topping the Premier League's fair play table!  

European Stalwarts en route

There are some big clubs still left within the qualifying rounds, and, although West Ham have missed them in this stage of qualifying, they will be added to the pot along with the 15 losers from the Champions League qualifying round. Teams such as; Southampton, AZ Alkamaar, Athletic Bilbao, Celtic, Monaco, Ajax, Fenebarche and Shakhtar Donetsk. Of course there are many more teams who have consistently been in and around the European competitions.

Interestingly, West Ham, if they do get through to the play-off stage, could well face up against an old side of Bilic's; Croatian side Hajduk Split who he started his playing days with, as well as being his management project, before he took on the reign as Croatia's national manager. 

With some of these names involved in the competition, where can West Ham honestly expect to get? Really, it all depends on the prioritisation handed down to Bilic from those above him. Would the owners rather a domestic cup journey, or, try to get into the knock-out rounds in Europe?

Both could have equally as damaging an effect on West Ham's league desires too - so it will be a case of weighing up the options at the end of the window and assessing how good, and, how deep their squad is for what could be four competitions come the start of the season. 

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