Declan Rice delivers pulsating final act to push West Ham over the line

<span>Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA</span>
Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Declan Rice could never have dreamed this. Almost a decade after being released as a teenager by Chelsea, West Ham’s captain and talisman has the fairytale ending he so dearly craved.

Until Jarrod Bowen’s dramatic late winning goal that prompted David Moyes to embark on a David Pleat‑esque jig across the turf at the Eden Arena, winning a first major European trophy since the days of Bobby Moore and company in 1965 had seemed the least likely scenario against Fiorentina. The Italian side dominated possession thanks to the outstanding Sofyan Amrabat despite falling behind to Saïd Benrahma’s penalty. But it is a testament to the spirit Moyes and Rice have created among this group of players that West Ham simply refused to give in. Now they have their reward.

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Having won 13 of their previous 14 matches in this competition to reach the final, there had been a growing feeling of optimism among the estimated 20,000 West Ham supporters who descended on Prague’s main square during the daytime. Most of those clad in claret and blue sang “One more year, one more year, Declan Rice” in hope rather than expectation as they made their way to the stadium and fanzone.

But for the 4,890 lucky enough to have secured an official ticket in the 19,370-capacity home of Slavia Prague and a few thousand more who had also somehow found a way in, this was an occasion to savour. From the moment that Rice received a rapturous welcome as he led West Ham’s players on to the pitch to warm up, there was a sense of determination to finish the journey that began with the run to the Europa League semi‑finals last season. Not even the pre-match ceremony featuring a group of largely middle-aged men charging about on the pitch playing electric guitars could dampen the enthusiasm before kick-off.

But while he is expected to join Arsenal in the summer having racked up almost 250 appearances since his debut in 2017 as an 18‑year‑old, Rice showed for one final time that he remains the heartbeat of this side. After gifting the ball to Nicolás González inside the opening five minutes, he tracked the Argentina forward as he cut into the area and, while Rice’s tackle was not the cleanest or most orthodox, he won the ball fairly and left González in a crumpled heap on the ground after inadvertently catching him in the face.

In Amrabat, however, Fiorentina have a similarly adept conductor at the base of their midfield and it was Morocco’s World Cup star who took the initiative in the first half. The 26-year-old has been heavily linked with Manchester United and Liverpool but said this week that he does not necessarily see himself moving to the Premier League, even if his languid style would surely be an instant success. Amrabat could only watch when Rice dragged a shot just wide following a throw-in before he pinched the ball off Michail Antonio on the edge of his own area but squandered the opportunity.

Benrahma’s booking for simulation after a number of fouls on Antonio were waved away by the Spanish referee, Carlos del Cerro Grande, was the trigger for a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing” from West Ham fans. Some threw missiles at the Fiorentina captain, Cristiano Biraghi, as he prepared to take a corner and were warned subsequently by the stadium announcer after Rice and Lucas Paquetá had already intervened. But fortune was on West Ham’s side just before the break when Luka Jovic turned home the rebound from Christian Kouamé’s header and was judged to be marginally offside.

While quality may have been in short supply, there was no break in intensity at the start of the second half as Moyes exchanged a few words with his opposite number Vincenzo Italiano in the technical area, with the suggestion that Fiorentina’s players were going down too easily. The moment he and West Ham’s supporters had been waiting for came just after the hour when Biraghi handled as he challenged Bowen and Benrahma was the coolest person in the stadium as he dispatched the penalty. But their joy lasted less than five minutes as Rice was unable to prevent Giacomo Bonaventura from volleying home the equaliser after a brilliant cushioned first touch.

Suddenly, it was a purple siege as Fiorentina poured forward and Rolando Mandragora missed the target with a golden opportunity. Rice attempted to lift his side with a typically surging run through midfield but misplaced his pass just as it seemed West Ham could be on to something. In the end, one moment of inspiration from Paquetá to pick out Bowen was all that it needed to create memories that will last a lifetime for Rice, Moyes and every West Ham supporter.