As housewarming parties go, West Ham United could not have wished for a better introduction to life in their shiny new Stratford home. While a makeshift green sheet covering the running track was a sign that a few tweaks are still required before the Olympic Stadium is fully ready for them, the roof did not cave in, the floodlights worked and, most importantly, Slaven Bilic’s side shook off the pre-season rust to reach the Europa League play-offs at the expense of NK Domzale.
Behind the scenes at West Ham's new home – in pictures
Winning their first competitive fixture should boost West Ham’s confidence as they adjust to playing in a ground that feels light years away from Green Street and this victory ensured that they bettered last year’s abortive run in Europe. West Ham lost in this round last year and were beaten by their limited Slovenian opponents in the first leg of this tie, but they were rarely in danger after Cheikhou Kouyaté made history by becoming the first player to score here.
Sofiane Feghouli rattled in his first goal since his free transfer from Valencia to secure a 4-2 aggregate win and, four years to the day since Super Saturday electrified the Olympics, it was just a surprise that West Ham’s marketing department had not thought to brand their opening night Tremendous Thursday. Yet that would have been presumptuous given that no one was sure about what to expect. Watching the stadium fill up in the moments before kick-off, one thing was clear as supporters poured through the turnstiles and found their bearings: Upton Park belonged to a different world and a different time.
Bilic had warned that it might take some time for West Ham to feel comfortable in their new surroundings, even though the game had sold out at 54,000, and there is an undeniable distance between the stands and the pitch. Converting an athletics venue into one suitable for football is tricky to pull off and there are areas that need to be polished before West Ham’s opening Premier League home game against Bournemouth on 21 August, when the capacity will rise to 60,000.
However Bilic, who confirmed that Diafra Sakho’s move to West Bromwich Albion collapsed after the striker failed a medical, was quietly encouraged. “It was more than I expected,” West Ham’s manager said. “The atmosphere is loud. You can hear them. There is no point comparing it to Upton Park.”
West Ham certainly needed the crowd to whip up an intense atmosphere after performing so poorly in last week’s 2-1 defeat in Slovenia and the tension was punctured when Bilic’s side avoided the ignominy of the first goal in this sprawling bowl of a ground being scored by Domzale. Kouyaté improvised cleverly when a scuffed cross from Sam Byram trickled through to him in the six-yard box, flicking the ball past Axel Maraval, and Enner Valencia deserved praise for sparking the attack with a burst away from Álvaro Brachi.
West Ham were ahead on away goals after eight minutes and they increased their lead when Kouyaté scored again in the 25th minute, stabbing a low finish past Maraval after Andy Carroll had nodded down Michail Antonio’s driven cross from the right. Domzale’s protests that play should have been stopped for Brachi to receive treatment were ignored by Fredy Fautrel, the French referee who was replaced in the second half after suffering an injury.
West Ham were firmly in control despite the absence of seven senior players, including Dimitri Payet, but the game became scrappier after the interval. Feghouli and Valencia spurned opportunities and it was nervy at times, with Domzale only needing to score once to force extra-time. Matic Crnic stung Darren Randolph’s palms from 20 yards midway through the second half.
Yet Domzale were unable to jab at Antonio’s inexperience as a right-back and, with Havard Nordtveit smooth in his midfield screening role, West Ham sealed their victory in the 81st minute. Released by Mark Noble, Feghouli lashed the ball inside the near post, a perfect way to round off the evening.