Bilic - 'The most important thing is that we are through'

Slaven Bilic insisted his West Ham United players have to learn from their uncomfortable experience of edging past Maltese side Birkirkara FC
Slaven Bilic insisted his West Ham United players have to learn from their uncomfortable experience of edging past Maltese side Birkirkara FC on penalties in the UEFA Europa League.

The Hammers relinquished their first-leg lead to Fabrizio Miccoli’s close-range finish before James Tomkins was sent-off for retaliating after Nikola Vukanac pushed him in the back as the two players awaited a set piece – West Ham’s second red card in two away Europa League ties this season.

Forced to play for 75 minutes with ten men, the Hammers huffed and puffed in the heat and humidity of a raucous Ta’ Qali National Stadium, but could not find the decisive away goal they craved, even after Birkirkara’s Maurizio Mazzetti was sent-off in extra-time.

Instead, their class finally showed from the penalty spot as Mark Noble, Mauro Zarate, Aaron Cresswell, Joey O’Brien and Diego Poyet all converted, while Vukanac blazed his effort miles over the crossbar to see the Hammers advance.

A relieved Bilic said his team deserved to go through to face Romanians FC Astra, but that they must learn to ignore the sideshows that have threatened to derail their European adventure.

“The most important thing is that we are through,” said the manager. “They started better, they pressed up front, they definitely knew they would get used to conditions in this heat
they started better. We took the control of the game, but we didn’t create chances, even though we we were around the box a lot and passing the ball.

“We lacked either the determination or quality to go into the box and create clear cut chances.”
Bilic admitted his players must improve their composure levels if they are to continue in the competition after seeing Tomkins receive his marching orders in very similar circumstances to Diafra Sakho’s red card against FC Lusitans.

“That two rounds, two stupid red cards, first in Andorra and now here,” the boss lamented.

“We didn’t get used to playing in Europe in this kind of atmosphere. We have to adjust, because we cannot react like that to provocation.

“It will happen again, 100 per cent. Both of them were a little bit hard for me but we gave them a chance to give us to give red card.

“After that, it was much harder for us. We were the better team at end of the game, but we didn’t create a lot and we didn’t penetrate enough.”

While the Hammers’ open play was not good enough to break down Giovanni Tedesco’s resolute side, it was a different matter when it went to penalties.

All five West Ham players scored with confidence, while Vukanac lost his composure at the vital moment and fired a Chris Waddle-esque spot-kick high into the Maltese night.

“When it came to the penalties, they are a lottery, but all five guys took them really, really good. I saw confidence in their eyes when I asked them who would take them.

“More than five wanted to take them, we were confident and it happened and we are through.”

In the long run, Bilic believes the physical and mental test his players passed in Malta will give them strength and confidence for a potentially long season ahead.

“We played 120 minutes, which for a pre-season is good. On this kind of pitch, I can only praise the character to play with a man down, chasing the result, in that kind of humidity.

“We showed character, determination and we didn’t go into second half of extra time, 1-0 and a man down in the heat and give it up. We wanted to turn it around and the end we just about deserved it.”