Dmitri Halajko: Under-21s travelling to Portsmouth to win the group

Dmitri Halajko

West Ham United Under-21s travel to Portsmouth’s Fratton Park on Tuesday evening with qualification already assured for the knockout stages of this season’s Papa John’s Trophy.

Following 3-1 and 1-0 wins over League Two sides Southend United and Colchester United respectively, Dmitri Halajko’s young Hammers have already qualified from Group E of the Southern section of the competition, which was until recently known as the EFL Trophy.

Portsmouth’s 3-0 win at Southend last month guaranteed both their and the Irons' progression into the knockout round – and so Tuesday evening’s tie will instead decide who tops the group and will thus be seeded.

This season marks the first time the Hammers' development squad have qualified for the knockout stages – which are also initially regionalised – since 2017/18, and it is only the second such occasion since academies were invited to participate four years ago.

As per every game, however, development squad lead coach Dmitri Halajko wants to see his side attack the challenge ahead of them.

“We go into the game with a desire to try and finish top of the group,” he explained.

“That’s the target we set ourselves right at the start of the season and it’s what we’ll try and achieve against Portsmouth. 

“Also, we’ll go to play against a top team at a top stadium and really soak up that experience and learn from it. It’s a great stadium with loads of history. 

“Because of some of the COVID restrictions, we haven’t had many stadium games this season, so the lads will be really excited to get a game played at a really famous stadium with a lot of history behind it.”

The Hammers are sure to face a tough challenge on the south coast, with Portsmouth having reached the final of last season’s competition; their Wembley date with Salford City has yet to be scheduled.

Kenny Jackett's team currently sit seventh in the League One table, having finished fifth and reached the play-off semi-finals in 2019/20.

Effort you couldn’t fault – they gave it everything. Quality and making mistakes, we can definitely fault, but in terms of effort you can see how hard they’re trying

Dmitri Halajko

Nevertheless, the Papa John’s Trophy has also seen West Ham U21s produce some of their finest football so far this season, with all four of their goals in the competition right out of the top drawer.

Despite a difficult opening to their Premier League 2 campaign, ending in a 4-2 loss to Liverpool on Friday afternoon, Halajko has no doubts that his young group have both the requisite talent and mentality to succeed moving forwards.

He said of his players: “I think you could see how determined they were against Liverpool when, down to ten men, they were still pushing, still pushing, still pushing, still running, still tackling, still giving it everything. 

“Effort you couldn’t fault – they gave it everything. Quality and making mistakes, we can definitely fault, but in terms of effort you can see how hard they’re trying. 

“We just need to brush up on some of our basics around key moments, and the results will come.”

West Ham United Under-21s take on Portsmouth on Tuesday 10 November in a behind-closed-doors fixture. Kick-off is at 7pm; you can follow all the action with our live blog on from 6.30pm.

The match will also be streamed through Portsmouth's EFL iFollow service with match passes available at £10 via the home team website.

Please note that all Academy fixtures will be played behind closed doors until further notice. Only key personnel will be admitted on site and matches will be played without supporters present, in line with safety guidelines and social distancing measures in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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