Slaven Bilic appeared to sacrifice West Ham’s bid for a first Europa League group-stage appearance 12 months ago after his side’s 2-2 first-leg at home to Astra Giurgiu, with the then-new boss replacing the entire first XI, mostly with youngsters, ahead of the 2-1 second-leg loss.
He had excuses, to an extent, with former skipper Kevin Nolan quoting afterwards:
“The gaffer has shown in his selection the main priority is the Premier League and this year the main thing is to make sure we go to the Olympic Stadium in the Premier League.”
Bilic managed as much and more, with wins over Arsenal, Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester City in his first six top-flight games in charge allaying early fears such as Nolan’s, culminating in seventh place and another stab at the continent’s consolation cup.
There are no excuses now we know how good Dimitri Payet is, and how effectively Bilic utilised fellow new men Pedro Obiang, Angelo Ogbonna, Michail Antonio and Manuel Lanzini, now signed permanently from Al Jazira Club after an impressive loan campaign.
As luck would have it, they’ve been drawn against the same club at the same stage of the same tournament, giving Bilic a chance to show his true colours.
West Ham have had two fewer qualifying matches this term, and while Man City away lies in wait the Sunday after their home second leg, as Arsenal did 12 months ago following the ‘disappointment’ in Romania, they will at least be a couple of fixtures into the Premier League campaign.
The Irons are 25/1 to win the Europa League, with Manchester United 15/2 favourites.
City’s 12/1 odds of winning the Champions League weren’t shaken by another trip to Romania, with Steaua Bucharest drawn as Pep Guardiola’s first European opponents at the helm of the two-time Premier League champions.
Celtic may feel a little miffed about missing out on League of Ireland side Dundalk, but did manage to avoid tricky Croatian crowd Dinamo Zagreb and Bulgarian nouveau riche Ludogorets Razgrad, with the Scottish Premiership giants, 500/1 to win the Champions League, faced with a trip to Israel’s Hapoel Beer-Sheva.
Dundalk, who don’t currently attract an outright price in Ladbrokes’ Champions League betting, will play Polish champions Legia Warsaw.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.