West Ham: David Moyes forced to abandon Plan A to keep Europa League run alive

Drawing board: David Moyes (Getty Images)
Drawing board: David Moyes (Getty Images)

It is a testament to West Ham’s growing reputation as canny European operators that, had this contest ended at 80 minutes, you might well have concluded that a goalless game going nowhere was part of the plan all along.

Certainly, having beaten Freiburg twice already in this Europa League’s group stage, a draw on return to the Black Forest would have left West Ham firm favourites to advance via a straight shootout at the London Stadium in a week’s time.

Forward-planning, though can be a dangerous game, and having kept their German opponents at arm’s length with relative ease for so long, the Hammers were undone by a late twist in Michael Gregoritsch’s close-range finish.

They very nearly found salvation in another, only for referee Alejandro Hernandez to stick to his guns in refusing a stoppage-time penalty for handball despite a lengthy VAR check.

Michael Gregoritsch’s celebrates his goal (Getty Images)
Michael Gregoritsch’s celebrates his goal (Getty Images)

David Moyes’s side are by no means out of the contest. But to qualify for a third straight European quarter-final they must now do what they have not since the night they reached the first in that run, and come from behind at the midway stage in a tie.

Moyes knows better than anyone that results must ultimately justify means, but there was logic in his team’s approach. The fate of the English teams involved in Thursday night’s early Europa League kick-offs served reminder that while such ties might just about be won in the opening leg, they can most certainly be lost.

So it is, that while Liverpool already have a foot in the last-eight, and Brighton are all but out, even after defeat, West Ham’s hopes are very much alive.

If there was a moment, though, when they might have seized the initiative it came in the quarter-of-an-hour after the break, when a cagey affair briefly opened up and West Ham’s front three were allowed space to thrive.

It was in this fixture during the group stage that Moyes first named Mohammed Kudus, Jarrod Bowen and Lucas Paqueta in the same starting lineup, providing a first glimpse of the blueprint which his team have either relied upon, or sorely missed, ever since.

It was a hard-fought first leg (Getty Images)
It was a hard-fought first leg (Getty Images)

Having faced it twice already this season, Freiburg unsurprisingly paid extra heed to the threat, doubling up on both wide players and ensuring combinations between the three had to be hard forged. The one time Kudus and Bowen connected in the first half, the latter scuffed his back-post effort, perhaps anticipating a defender’s touch.

After the break, though, Kudus found Paqueta with a fine ball that ought to have been headed home, while Ritsu Doan darted back just in time to deny the Brazilian an even easier chance. Bowen, too, went close, his curler tipped round the post by Noah Atubolu in the home goal.

Freiburg had seen off Champions League dropouts Lens in a playoff to reach this point, coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2 in extra-time. Without the same enforced urgency, though, they looked fun danger of allowing this game, and surely their best opportunity of sparking an upset, to drift by.

But when Roland Sallai’s shot was parried by Lukasz Fabianski, Kurt Zouma was slow to react, substitute Gregoritsch unmarked to poke home.

Plan A out of the window, West Ham have 90 minutes next week to come up with something else.