West Ham United resume their European tour with a trip to Belgium, where David Moyes’ men face KRC Genk in UEFA Europa League Group H.
The Hammers head to Flanders sitting top of the standings with a perfect nine points out of nine following 2-0 wins away at Dinamo Zagreb and home to Rapid Vienna and a 3-0 victory over Genk in the reverse fixture at London Stadium a fortnight ago.
West Ham are one of only two Europa League clubs to have won three out of three alongside French club Lyon, and one of only two yet to concede a goal alongside Galatasaray of Turkey.
A fourth win out of four in Genk would put the Irons on the brink of automatic qualification to the round of 16, while a point would guarantee European football of some description after Christmas.
However, the Belgian Cup holders and Premier Division A runners-up have hit form since their defeat in east London – one of five straight losses in all competition – by thrashing Winkel Sport 6-0 in the Belgian Cup and winning 6-2 at Zulte Waregem in the League at the weekend, both away from home.
We will have coverage of the pre-match press conference for you on Wednesday evening from around 7pm UK time and all the big match action on whufc.com, our Official App and across our social media channels on Thursday.
Kick-off at the Cegeka Arena is at 5.45pm UK time.
How to follow
Thursday’s tie will be broadcast live in the UK on BT Sport. If you live overseas you might be able to watch the game live too, so please check local listings for coverage in your territory.
We will also be covering the game live with a blog and audio commentary on whufc.com and our Official App and across our social media channels, with goals, highlights and exclusive reaction to follow after the final whistle.
David Moyes has rotated his starting XI for previous UEFA Europa League ties and is expected to do so again in Belgium, with one eye on Sunday’s Premier League home fixture with Liverpool.
West Ham United are coming to the end of a run of seven games in 22 days in three different competitions, and Moyes could therefore hand starts to the likes of Alphonse Areola, Craig Dawson, Issa Diop, Mark Noble, Andriy Yarmolenko and Nikola Vlašić.
Manuel Lanzini, Arthur Masuaku, Alex Král and Ryan Fredericks will also hope for minutes, while Vladimir Coufal could be involved after returning from injury and featuring as a substitute in the previous two matches.
The 1980s saw the launch of both KRC (Koninklijke Racing Club) Genk and the cartoon series which has provided the Belgian Cup winners their nickname, The Smurfs.
And, like the small blue, humanoid creatures who live in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest, Genk’s staff, players and supporters have worked together, shared and cooperated to become one of the most-successful clubs in their country’s history.
Genk was formed as recently as 1988 – six years after the original The Smurfs animated cartoon series was first broadcast by ITV on Sunday lunchtimes – following a merger between local clubs Waterschei Thor and KFC Winterslag.
In the 33 years since, the club has enjoyed sustained success, winning four Belgian First Division titles, five Belgian Cups and two Belgian Super Cups.
Over the past two decades, The Smurfs have finished outside the top eight on just two occasions – in 2007/08 and 2009/10.
For a club that is not part of Belgium’s traditional De Grote Drie/Les Trois Grands (The Big Three) of Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liège, and without the long history of the likes of Royal Antwerp, Beerschot, Mechelen or Saint-Gilloise, Genk’s list of honours won is nothing short of sensational.
And like the cartoon characters, who ride storks in order to travel long distances, Genk have also made their mark in foreign lands, qualifying for Europe on no fewer than 17 occasions in their 33-season existence.
After making their continental debut in the 1997 UEFA Intertoto Cup, Genk have twice reached the UEFA Champions League group stage, in 2002/03 and 2011/12, and went as far as the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals in 2016/17, defeating a certain Astra Giurgiu along the way.
On Thursday, The Smurfs will contest their 118th competitive European fixture, having put together another impressive campaign last term to finish second in the Belgian First Division and defeated Anderlecht and Standard Liège on their way to lifting the Belgian Cup.
While Genk’s past and present are both hugely impressive, the club also takes care of its future by producing top-class players at its outstanding Academy and scouting far and wide for promising overseas talent.
Among the instantly recognisable names produced by The Smurfs in recent years were future Belgium internationals and Premier League stars Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Benteke and Thibaut Courtois, while the likes of Wilfred Ndidi, Kalidou Koulibaly, Leon Bailey and Sergej Milinković-Savić all spent time with the club as young players.
So, with a multi-talented squad, a productive Academy and scouting network, a successful manager in former Netherlands midfielder John van den Brom and a smart, modern stadium in the 23,700-capacity Cegeka Arena, Genk look well set to be smurfing at the top of both Belgian and European football for many years to come.
West Ham United have been drawn to face Belgian opposition for the third time in European competition this season.
The Irons’ two previous meetings with clubs from Belgium were both historic occasions, with La Gantoise – now KAA Gent – providing West Ham’s first-ever competitive European opposition back in 1964, and RSC Anderlecht doing so in the 1976 European Cup Winners’ Cup final (pictured), which the Belgian club won 4-2 in Brussels.
West Ham may not have met KRC Genk since the club’s foundation in 1988, but the Hammers did meet one of the two clubs who merged to form tonight’s visitors – Thor Waterschei.
John Lyall took the Hammers to the pre-season Arminia Bielefeld Tournament in early August 1983, where they were beaten 3-1 by Dutch side Ajax in the semi-finals.
With the Belgians losing to the hosts in their own semi-final, the Irons faced Waterschei in the third/fourth play-off at the Bielefelder Alm stadium.
An exciting match ensued, with Alan Devonshire seeing a shot cleared off the line and Phil Parkes saving a penalty inside the opening 12 minutes.
Devonshire then set up Paul Goddard to put West Ham in front on 29 minutes, but Waterschei were back on level terms when they equalised shortly after half-time.
The game ended 1-1 and went to a penalty shootout. Although Parkes saved the first Waterschei penalty, two unnamed West Ham players missed and the Belgians edged the tie 4-3 on spot-kicks.
Referee: Alexander Standev (North Macedonia)
Assistant Referees: Dejan Kostadinov (North Macedonia) and Kushtrim Lika (North Macedonia)
Fourth Official: Dejan Jakimovski (North Macedonia)
VAR: Kevin Blom (Netherlands)
Assistant VAR: Allard Lindhout (Netherlands)
Thursday’s tie will be officiated by the experienced North Macedonian Alexander Standev.
The 44-year-old has been a referee since 1996 and took charge of his first top-flight game in his home country in 2002.
A FIFA official since 2006, Standev officiated at the 2011 UEFA European U21 Championship, 2008 UEFA European U19 Championship and 2006 UEFA European U17 Championship.
Standev took charge of UEFA Europa League ties involving both Chelsea and Wigan Athletic in 2013 and has refereed a grand total of 53 matches in this competition.