Lucas Paqueta key to West Ham's Europa Conference League hopes and first continental title since 1965

There was a feeling of exuberance around West Ham United at the end of August 2022, when Lucas Paqueta joined the club. For those raised on the artistry of Trevor Brooking, the signing of Brazil's first-choice attacking midfielder was almost too good to be true. It meant that good times were surely coming, and the club could push on from a creditable seventh place in the Premier League season prior.

But things have not quite worked out like that. West Ham spent much of the campaign anxiously looking over their shoulder fearing relegation, and Paqueta has not always convinced. That will be forgotten on Wednesday night, however, if the player can help the club overcome Fiorentina, win the Europa Conference League final and claim West Ham's first major continental title since 1965.

The venue in Prague has a capacity of under 20,000, surely too small for a decisive match between two traditional clubs, for a game that will go a long way to defining Paqueta's debut season in English football.

In truth, his early problems with West Ham were not entirely unexpected. Paqueta is hugely talented and exceptionally versatile. As well as his favoured attacking midfield role he can operate from either flank, deeper in midfield or even as a centre forward. There have been games for Brazil where he has successfully carried out three different functions in the course of the 90 minutes.

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But he is not blessed with exceptional pace and this means that he works best as a combination player. With the national team, for example, he has had a sweet thing going with Neymar, with Paqueta obviously in the supporting role. Indeed, during the World Cup in Qatar it was noticeable that he briefly lost his place in the starting lineup during Neymar's absence through injury. When the star man returned, so did Paqueta, who played a small yet vital role in the wonderful Neymar goal that came a matter of seconds away from being decisive against Croatia to secure a place in the semifinals.

It could be argued that one of Brazil's problems in Qatar was that the twin-winger system adopted on the eve of the tournament had the effect of pushing Neymar and Paqueta too far apart on the field. Over the last few years when the pair have been closer together, they have consistently managed to create.

Given, of course, that West Ham did not sign Neymar as well, it is hardly surprising that Paqueta initially ran into problems combining with unfamiliar teammates in a new league, with a new language. And there is a petulant side to his nature which can emerge when things are not going well. Former Brazil boss Tite used to address this with him, as well as a tendency to showboat and give the ball away dangerously close to goal when he operates deeper. In an unforgiving competition such as the Premier League, this was always likely to cause problems. But, with time, he is finding his feet.

Paqueta ended the league season strongly. There are now West Ham fans who believe that it is more important to keep the Brazilian than Declan Rice. This is no slight on the England midfielder, who is linked Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that it might be easier to replace the solid work of Rice than the inspirational touches of Paqueta. Definitive judgements, though, will have to wait until after Wednesday's final.

And there is one area where Paqueta should have an edge of experience over most of the other players on the pitch in Prague -- experience of big finals. Not that he has too many happy memories. Paqueta was part of a Brazil squad that won the Copa America in 2019, but he hardly featured in the competition. Two years later, though, he was an integral part of the starting lineup in a Brazil team that lost a Copa America on home soil for the first time. Lionel Messi's Argentina won the title. The Neymar-Paqueta link up, though, was the best thing about the Brazil side during the competition. A poor Maracana pitch in the final did not help, but nor did an excess of petulance after Angel Di Maria had given Argentina a first half lead -- something which must serve as a lesson for Wednesday.

At club level, Paqueta can look back on mixed experiences from the early days of his time with Flamengo. Towards the end of 2017 he was on target in the first leg of the final of the Brazilian Cup. But it was Flamengo's only goal in the two ties, and Cruzeiro took the title in a penalty shootout. Soon afterwards, he scored again in the second leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana, bringing Flamengo level on aggregate and sending a packed Maracana stadium into ecstasy. But a cool penalty from Ezequiel Barco handed the title to Independiente of Argentina.

The time may have come for Paqueta's big-match fortunes to change. And if he could sniff out goals -- both of his strikes in the 2017 finals were close range, centre-forward efforts -- in front of giant crowds in the Maracana when he was not long past his 20th birthday, then the Fortuna Arena in Prague should hold few fears. The stage is set for Paqueta to become the golden boy in claret and blue.