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Champions League

Hammers get off to Europa League flyer as Rice hits amazing solo goal to seal win in Croatia

ANT AND DEC brought the house down on the first leg of their European tour as they kept the West Ham bandwagon rolling along.

Dinamo Zagreb were supposed to be delivering a rude awakening to the East End boys about what life in Europe is like.

Declan Rice scored a stunning solo goal in Zagreb


Declan Rice scored a stunning solo goal in ZagrebCredit: Reuters

But just as television’s top double act continue to shine, so Michail Antonio and Declan Rice are becoming an unstoppable force in football.

Antonio notched his fifth goal of the season to give them the lead, before Rice marked his 150th appearance for the club by scoring a wonderful second as West Ham did a job on the Croatians.

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For months last season, many expected the bubble to burst but David Moyes and his team kept on to the end – and they look in no mood to let up this time round either.

Moyes had admitted at times earlier this season he had no real idea how his team would fare when European competition came around.

After all, this was the club’s first foray into the group stage of the Europa League, and they were coming up against a side that reached the quarter-finals last year.

The fact Zagreb were embarking on their 16th straight season of European football was another reason the Hammers boss had questions about whether his team would have the nous needed.

He needn’t have worried – for the Hammers delivered a masterclass in how to win away.

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But should we really be surprised anymore? After all, Champions League winner Kurt Zouma was making his debut in the centre of defence behind the midfield pair of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek.

All three know their way around international football, as does fellow new signing Nikola Vlasic who was making his first start in a midfield alongside Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals.

As a unit they were too good for the Croatian leaders right from the opening minute, forcing corner after corner as they set up camp in the Zagreb half.

One of those saw Soucek cause chaos in the home defence who only just managed to clear – and it was surely only a matter of time before the Premier League side found a lead.

Sure enough the opening goal of West Ham’s European campaign arrived on 21 minutes, and who else but Antonio was the man to find the net?

The striker would not have started this match had he not got himself sent off at Southampton last weekend, with the plan to save him for the visit of Manchester United on Sunday.

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But suspension for this weekend meant Moyes was able to unleash his in-form striker, and the Jamaica international responded with the opener.

He latched onto an under-hit back pass from Kevin Theophile-Catherine, rounded keeper Dominik Livakovic and rolled the ball into the empty net.

Two minutes later Antonio’s ball round the corner set full-back Ryan Frederick through on goal cutting in from the right but his shot was diverted wide for a corner by Livakovic.

Croatian Vlasic then turned and drilled a shot narrowly wide just before the end of a first half so comfortable for the Hammers, it was only in stoppage time when Zagreb actually won a corner.

But games are not won just by a decent half, and Zagreb came out after the break looking more like the decent outfit they had been expected to be.

And when Bruno Petkovic crashed a 20-yard shot just wide, it not only got the Zagreb players up for it but also the packed home crowd who call themselves the ‘Bad Blue Boys’.

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Yet just as Dinamo looked to get up a head of steam, they were stopped in their tracks by Rice’s one-man moment of brilliance.

He read a pass in to the feet of Petkovic, nipped in front to rob possession just past half way, and set off galloping towards goal.

Petkovic tried every trick in the book to stop the Hammers man but Rice shrugged him off and left him in a heap before driving into the area and shooting low through Livakovic into the net.

It was a go that encapsulated Rice’s abilities – though his decision to celebrate in front of those Bad Blue Boys almost started a fight with Zagreb captain Arjan Ademi racing in to confront him.

There was the flicker of a fight-back attempted by the hosts, largely in the shape of Luka Ivanusec who twice saw efforts pass agonisingly the wrong side of the post with Lukasz Fabianski scrambling to cover.

But that was it, and the Hammers were able to ease down through the gears see out the game with ease. 

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