Declan Rice believes West Ham are hitting form at just the right time to turn a forgettable season into a memorable one.
The Hammers have eased their relegation fears by taking seven points from their last four matches, and on Thursday night they kept their hopes of a first trophy in 43 years on track by beating Belgian side Gent to reach the Europa Conference League semi-finals.
“There has not been a lot to cheer about,” West Ham captain Rice told the club website. “But now we feel the fans, and us as players, you have seen us start to hit the form we know we are capable of.
“It has taken longer than we expected this season, but we are hitting it at the right time. To get into European semi-finals back-to-back, I don’t think that should be underestimated how big that is for this club.
“We can’t underestimate this. You see how much Roma celebrated winning it last year, it is so big for the club, for the manager, and for the players. And for me, this competition has been taken seriously and we want to go the whole way.”
Two goals from Michail Antonio and a Lucas Paqueta penalty helped West Ham to an ultimately comfortable 4-1 win on the night, and 5-2 on aggregate, even though Gent took the lead through Hugo Cuypers.
But the goal of the night belonged to Rice, who won possession midway in his own half and drove forward 60 yards, evading two challenges before slotting the ball home.
“I think that might be my best one yet,” added the England midfielder.
“I’ve scored some good top-corner ones, but the way I picked it up, I knew I had that space in front of me.
“Once I started to drive with the ball, I saw the defender and I took a touch with my right and just saw his whole body move the other way.
“I thought, ‘if I take you back left here, you’re not going to be able to get me’, and that’s exactly what happened. He was dancing away, so I just put it in the back of the net.
“As a footballer, I will look back on these nights when I retire. And I’ll just think ‘wow’. What a feeling to score.”
Speaking in a press conference on Friday, Hammers boss David Moyes had praise for Rice, who he knows will be in demand again this summer.
“When you’re 23-24 like Dec is, you should be learning all the time and whenever he goes away with England he comes back an improved player,” Moyes said.
“We’re delighted to have him playing so well for us and long may that continue.
“I’ve talked about his value and it’s up to other people to make that judgement.”
The Hammers will take on Dutch side AZ Alkmaar over two legs next month as they bid to reach a first European final since 1976.