AEK Larnaca manager José Luis Oltra forecasts a tough match when the Cypriot First Division title challengers travel to West Ham United in the UEFA Europa Conference League round of 16 on Thursday.
A bumper crowd at London Stadium is set to welcome Oltra and company, who need to overturn the Hammers’ two-goal first-leg advantage should they reach the last eight.
Despite Michail Antonio's double in Cyprus last week swinging the momentum in the east Londoners' direction, Oltra insists the tie is far from over. The Spanish coach arrived in east London in good spirits but has made it clear he wants his players to enjoy what he expects to be an exciting occasion under the lights.
Speaking at his pre-match press conference, held at London Stadium on Wednesday evening, Oltra stated: “We have to compete and enjoy because if we don’t compete, we are going to suffer on the pitch and we are going to have a hard time.
“Last week, we competed very well. They are a very good team. They beat us, but [on Thursday] we have to compete at our best level for us. We also have to try and enjoy [the occasion] because the players deserve to play in these types of games, in this Stadium, in this atmosphere, with this Premier League team in front of us.”
Although West Ham United manager David Moyes confirmed Antonio will not play in the second leg, Oltra is still wary of the challenge the Hammers will present, with Italy striker Gianluca Scamacca, who has four Conference League goals to his name, pushing for a first start since scoring the equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Leeds United in January.
“We have to enjoy it, for sure,” he reiterated, on the task ahead. “There is no pressure. We will try to do things well… and try to score first so that the opponent then will be nervous. But they have a lot of experience, with this coach, the staff and all the players that play here.”
AEK, who have reached the UEFA Europa League group stage on three occasions, do not want their European journey in the Conference League - the fifth competition Oltra has coached AEK in - to end just yet.
There is no doubt his men will be looking to draw on the experience of playing on 14 occasions in Europe this season, with the Spaniard leading his side in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League qualifiers, before their Europa Conference League campaign began with a 1-0 aggregate win over Ukrainian outfit SC Dnipro-1 in the knockout play-off round in February.
On what the Valencia-born coach expected from the task presented by West Ham United, the former midfielder, who has been in Cyprus since 2022, added: “Our priority is the Championship, but I want to put the best lineup to dream [of winning]. And I believe. Why not? It is difficult. West Ham is a big team, but we have to try and compete. I insist - why not? Impossible is nothing.”
What is clear is fatigue is likely to play a part in the tie's conclusion, with both bosses likely to draw on their respective squads following weekend league action.
West Ham United played on Sunday against Aston Villa. The visitors, meanwhile, who sit second in the Cypriot First Division - three points behind leaders APOEL – face a turnaround of just three days after playing on Monday evening.
As expected, Oltra was quick to explain that the busy schedule will bring considerable challenges for his side. The 53-year-old said: “We played Monday, then we had a long travel, with a match tomorrow.
“Tomorrow, I think, is our 44th official game of the season. And we are in March. We started to compete in July with the previous games in the Champions League and after we had the group stage of the Europa League and now Conference and the team has competed, almost always, very good. But we have to continue making history at this club. It is our target.”