West Ham’s Europa Conference League dream still on track as established stars deliver in win over AZ Alkmaar
Between David Moyes’ disco fever and his opposite number, Pascal Jansen, being the son of one half of a Dutch pop duo, the build-up to this game carried a distinctly musical feel.
In the end, it was Moyes’ West Ham who hit the higher note, overcoming yet more refereeing controversy to take a sizeable step towards a first European final in 47 years with a 2-1 first-leg win over AZ Alkmaar at the London Stadium.
Moyes has been left fuming by the state of officiating in the Premier League of late, and at half-time could not have been overly impressed with the continental offering either, referee Halil Umut Meler having waved away West Ham protests for a foul on Lucas Paqueta in the build-up to Tijani Reijnders’ opening goal.
For the second season in a row, the Irons found themselves behind in a home first-leg at this late stage of a European competition and chasing the tie, but unlike against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League 12 months ago, Moyes’ men succeeded here in reeling their rivals in before the midway stage and will go to the Netherlands next week with a slender lead to defend.
Said Benrahma and Michail Antonio were fitting, goalscoring heroes, two players whose inconsistencies across the course of a season frustrate, but who rose to the big occasion with excellent performances here, just as Moyes had demanded of his most established players when previewing the game on Wednesday.
Benrahma fired home a superb, high-pressure penalty after former Brighton and Arsenal goalkeeper Mat Ryan had nailed Jarrod Bowen in the face with a fist so obvious even Meler could not miss it. Antonio poked in to complete the turnaround soon after, following some penalty-box pinball.
The night brought an intriguing, if hardly unexpected, contrast of styles, one which you suspect will lead to a true cat-and-mouse encounter next Thursday, when at home Alkmaar will hope to dominate the ball and must throw at least some caution to the wind, while West Ham, on course for the final, will hope to sit in and counter.
Here, the visitors were patient and brave in possession, using the ball well enough to earn themselves moments of respite and stop the momentum afforded to West Ham by a rocking home atmosphere ever becoming truly overwhelming, even in the quarter-of-an-hour that remained after Antonio’s goal, when another for the Hammers would have put them truly in command of the tie.
Without the ball, though, the competition’s youngest side struggled to match West Ham’s directness and physicality. Deputy full-back Mees de Wit struggled to contain the Hammers down the right and was booked. Antonio drifted out to the left, his bustling, chaotic energy ensuring that even when he was not in full command of the ball, the visitors certainly weren’t either. From the Jamaican’s unintended back heel, Benrahma’s shot low from range a forced a fine save from Ryan, the closest the Irons went to an opener.
In midfield, Paqueta would not have looked out of place under either philosophy, the Brazilian technically superb but strong, too, driving through the centre of the pitch, constantly throwing challengers off his back until the moment when Sam Beukema’s clear, if not exactly forceful, push turned an aerial contest into a free-header.
Within 16 seconds (perhaps too long a gap for VAR to intervene?) the ball was in the home net, Reijnders starting the move with a superb piece of control before finishing it by beating Alphonse Areola at his near-post from 25 yards.
Areola has done little wrong in his role as cup goalkeeper - though never quite enough right to displace Premier League regular Lukasz Fabianski - but his reaction here was poor, his effort to save weak. Tomas Soucek, slow to close Reijnders down, shouldered a share of the blame, too.
At the end of another memorable European night, both errors feel like footnotes for now. From a position of small but significant authority, West Ham must make sure that remains the case in seven nights’ time.