West Ham Utd dragged themselves to a draw in Romania with their Europa League tie a reminder of how far they still have to go before they reach their peak.
In same two-legged match last year, Astra Giurgiu dumped the east Londoners out the cup, with supporters making the excuse that the manager was new and had other things on his mind.
No such excuse this time around and, although they take a precious away goal back to the London Stadium next Thursday, this is far from the side that went on to surprise the Premier League.
Manager Slaven Bilic will point to a comfortable result in the circumstances with a team depleted by injury and bad luck. No Manuel Lanzini, Cheikhou Kouyate, Aaron Cresswell, Andre Ayew, Sofiane Feghouli, Dimitri Payet or Arthur Masuaku.
Players like Reece Burke, Marcus Browne, Reece Oxford and new signing Jonathan Callieri were thrown in and finding their feet. Michail Antonio, a pocket powerhouse last season, still unsure of himself. Andy Carroll held in reserve.
The last nine minutes of the match, after the feisty Romanians had drawn level through Denis Alibec, the degree of fatigue in the team was worrying as West Ham embark on a run of games starting with Sunday’s home opener against Bournemouth.
After a scrappy start on a poor surface, West Ham engineered themselves a lead with a confident Mark Noble penalty following a handball. But, although they retained control for long periods, the team seemed laboured and undercooked, allowing Giurgiu to draw level, seconds after a golden opportunity to go 2-0 ahead was squandered.
Bilic said: “When you concede late you are not happy, especially when you know we had a glorious chance on the counter-attack and we could and should have put the game to bed.
“Then we concede after a set piece, which we had always looked comfortable with. It would be better to be 2-0 or 1-0 up and now next week is an open game.
“But under the circumstances, with the pitch and the team we had out there, it’s a good result. We should create more on a better pitch, which ours will be. It would have been ideal to win here 5-0 and rest Thursday. But it’s OK. And the score is very simple – if we can’t beat them at home, then we shouldn’t be in the Europa League.”
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