Villa is in just its third season outside of the English top flight since 1975, though Bruce managed Hull City and Birmingham City to the Premier League through the playoffs.
Boro scored plenty under Tony Pulis in the season, but it was a case of traditional Pulis stats in the playoffs. The notoriously stingy manager saw his side manage just two shots on target over two legs, with both coming in the home leg.
Ireland held firm in the face of Danish pressure and chances, ultimately securing precisely the result they were after — a 0-0 draw away to Denmark — in Saturday’s first of two legs with a place at the 2018 World Cup on the line.
Every measurable statistical category drastically favored the home side — 72 to 28 in possession; 14 shots (5 on goal) to 8 shots (2 on goal); 81 percent to 53 percent passing; and on and on — but Martin O’Neill’s side managed to keep the clean sheet anyway, courtesy of Darren Randolph‘s five saves, and a semi-spectacular miss.
It was, by a mile, the game’s best scoring chance, and it came and went in the 32nd minute. Christian Eriksen fired a shot on target from nearly 30 yards out, and while Randolph made the save while falling to his right, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper couldn’t hold the ball and it fell to Denmark’s Pione Sisto eight yards from goal. The Celta Vigo winger took his chance with his first touch, on his preferred right foot, and fired inches wide of the far post.
Randolph made a key save in the 90th minute (above photo), denying Yussuf Poulsen’s goal-bound header from the top of the six-yard box. Jens Stryger Larsen got down the left wing, cut back inside onto his right foot and served up a tantalizing ball for Poulsen, but Randolph was quick to react, rising to tip the ball over the crossbar and complete his man-of-the-match performance.
The decisive second leg will be played on Tuesday (2:45 p.m. ET), at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
West Ham truly, truly struggled at times last season. Injuries were abound. There were questions asked of Slaven Bilic.
And yet through all that, they finished 11th. That seems to speak to the depth of the roster and the fantastic, sometimes underappreciated managerial job Bilic did to keep the Hammers afloat despite all the struggles.
Best, worst case scenarios – Best case, this is a Europa League team. With all the new attacking talent for Bilic to play with, he can rotate players to avoid or deal with injuries. At the back, Bilic will have to find his preferred formation, because the depth will give him headaches – a good problem to have.
Through all the problems last season, the team still finished strong and away from the relegation battle, proving they are not a relegation candidate this season, even if the injury troubles return. Worst-case is probably another early flirt with the bottom third, but ultimately they pull out of it for a 13th place spot.
Best possible XI is…
Fonte — Reid — Ogbonna
Antonio — Noble — Lanzini — Kouyate — Arnautovic
Carroll — Hernandez
This is tough, and you can be sure Bilic will rotate plenty. Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell will get time in a typical 4-man defensive line, while Robert Snodgrass and Sofiane Feghouli will rotate through on the wings. Diafra Sakho provides striker depth.
— 11th place in Premier League
— FA Cup 3rd Round (lost to Manchester City)
— League Cup quarterfinals (lost to Manchester United)
Star Player: Chicharito — Last season, West Ham seriously missed a player who could finish chances with Andy Carroll either out or misfiring. Now, they have a guy who can provide that final touch. Chicharito is a top-class striker who will eat up the goals where last season the Hammers failed to find the back of the net.
Last year, West Ham was ninth in the Premier League in chances created. Add Arnautovic to that mix, plus a healthy Snodgrass and Lanzini, and this season could be a big return to England for the Little Pea.
Coach’s Corner: Slaven Bilic — If it wasn’t clear after his first season in charge at West Ham, last season should prove how valuable the 48-year-old Croatian is to the Hammers. Bilic is able to mix and match his tactics to fit who is available and on the field, such an important trait last season when players were dropping like flies. Now, with good squad depth, he’ll need to channel that ability again to get everyone’s best.
PST Predicts: With the creative talent and steadiness at the back, West Ham should seriously improve on last season. They’ll finish more chances, and with Bilic in charge, this should be a top-half team with a shot at a Europa League spot.