Daring West Ham give David Moyes’ European story one more thrilling chapter


In the final moments before kick-off, after an endless stream of rousing montages had finally run its course and as West Ham’s players huddled so long they had to be reminded by the referee’s whistle of a second leg to play, the London Stadium filled the airtime with a passionate chorus of the chant it has claimed as its own with such glee all year. Champions of Europe, we know what we are.

At 2-0 down and with the tie surely beyond rescue, it felt like an act of defiance, a resolve to make full use of the cupboard’s goods before their sell-by dates, the final song before the lights would at last be switched on on their European party, with who knows how long until the next.

In truth, last orders had been called on this quarter-final twice; once when Victor Boniface doubled Bayer Leverkusen’s lead late on in last week’s reverse to turn a tall order into a gargantuan one; and before that, when the draw itself was made.

But with what for an hour was a daring, dominant show, West Ham gave the new Bundesliga champions an almighty scare. After Michail Antonio had capped an all-out start with a goal, David Moyes’s side were just one more away from levelling right up until Jeremie Frimpong’s deflected clincher a minute from time extended Leverkusen’s unbeaten run to 44 games.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And while it is Xabi Alonso’s side who go on to face Roma in a rematch of last year’s semi-final, at the final whistle, there was nothing but applause and appreciation for the efforts of Moyes’s men. For a third European quarter-final in a row, they left the pitch hailed as heroes, beaten for the first time in that sequence but having inspired similar feelings of pride.

Midfielder James Ward-Prowse called it a “proper West Ham performance”, but in the opening 45 minutes, in particular, it was better than that. With the ball, the Hammers were at their direct best but without it they reached new heights, pressing, chasing and harrying Leverkusen.

Moyes had been only half-joking when he suggested pre-match that some over-zealous title celebrations from the Germans since the weekend might aid his team’s cause, but the visitors played here as if the odd Erdinger may well have left its mark.

“I was worried,” Alonso admitted later. “The team was not comfortable. In those moments, when they are pressing, it’s difficult to have a direct impact from the bench.”

He tried, putting centre-back Odilon Kossounou out of his misery with an Antonio-enforced change inside half-an-hour. It did little to shift the momentum, and had Jarrod Bowen not been denied on the volley, West Ham would have been level in the tie at the break. Perhaps the most telling sequence came in the dying seconds of the first half, when Granit Xhaka declined a four-on-three break in favour of running down the clock.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

Having had 33 shots across the first leg, midway through the second, Leverkusen had managed only one. The possession stats still had the Germans as the game’s dictators, but the eye-test told a different tale.

They were never quite put under the same pressure after the break, West Ham tiring badly after the hour. How they rally for what, in the Premier League’s race for Europe, is a crucial trip to Crystal Palace on Sunday will decide whether or not a good season might fizzle out.

“I couldn’t fault the players,” Moyes said. “If I was going to go out of Europe I wanted to go out playing like that.”

When Moyes’s tenure does end — either when his contract runs out this summer or further down the line — it will not be remembered for its near-weekly referendums on playing style, but for its European adventure and for nights like these.

The Scot did not take kindly to being asked to assess three seasons of continental escapades with a degree of finality at full-time, but if this does prove the last of them, it was a fitting end.