West Ham vs AZ Alkmaar: David Moyes needs key men to turn up in bid to go one better
Don’t they grow up fast? Twelve months ago, West Ham were the fresh-faced, new kids on the continental block, a novel force at this stage of European competition, having upset the established likes of Sevilla and Lyon to reach a first major semi-final since 1976.
Tonight, though, the role is reversed, David Moyes’s side wearing a more grizzled face and still bearing the scars of last season’s defeat by Eintracht Frankfurt as they again find themselves 180 minutes from a European final, this time with AZ Alkmaar and the Europa Conference League’s youngest line-up in their way.
It is not the done thing in elite sport to, publicly at least, regret and reflect, the obsession always with moving on to the next, but only last month Vladimir Coufal admitted he still is not over the Frankfurt loss.
West Ham went into that tie with Moyes’s romantic sentiment about it being ‘their time’ fresh in the mind. But they conceded within 60 seconds of the home leg and then had Aaron Cresswell sent off early as they tried to mount a comeback away.
“It made me realise every tournament you play in is incredibly difficult to get to a semi-final or a final,” Moyes said yesterday. “I don’t know if I can use it as a motivation, but we can hopefully use it as a learning tool. When you look back on how the game went, we were near enough chasing the game from minute one, really chasing the tie.”
Alkmaar are renowned for their outstanding academy, which might not quite match the starry honour rolls of Ajax and PSV, but nonetheless has proven a fine production line. Eleven academy players have featured in Pascal Jansen’s first team this season, several as regulars, and last month the club lifted the UEFA Youth League for the first time, having cruised past Barcelona and Real Madrid on the way.
It puts West Ham’s pride in their own Academy of Football into some context. The club’s Under-18s have enjoyed a sensational season, missing out on a treble only after losing 2-1 against Manchester City in last night’s Premier League National Final, but the financial clout of English football means youth development is a want, not a need, when it comes to first-team success.
This competition was created with sides such as Alkmaar in mind, those outside Europe’s top five leagues starved not merely of silverware but of the realistic chance to even compete at European level, Alkmaar having gone this deep into a tournament only once since losing the 1981 UEFA Cup Final to Bobby Robson’s Ipswich, the year after West Ham’s last major trophy.
“We’re going to come up against a team that’s got young, hungry players who are playing really well at the moment,” said Moyes, with Alkmaar currently fourth in the Eridivisie and pushing for a Europa League spot next season after a 0-0 draw with Ajax last weekend. “We’re going to have to try to use our experience.”
That ought to be among West Ham’s trump cards across this tie. Craig Dawson aside, every player to start either leg against Frankfurt last season is back for another crack.
Since then, Declan Rice has played in a World Cup quarter-final, likewise Lucas Paqueta for Brazil, and Nayef Aguerd was heavily involved in Morocco’s run to the last four.
Ironically, such has been their predicament, every member of West Ham’s squad has been playing in high stakes, must-win games almost weekly since the season resumed post-Qatar. “We’ve got players who have played in big games, big competitions and I think this is the moment,” Moyes said. “They were probably thinking this season, this is what it was going to be like and we’ve been disappointed we’ve not had that. This is as close to a big occasion as we can get at the moment.
“This is where you hope your big players can stand up, come out and show exactly what they are capable of.”
Against Frankfurt, West Ham never quite did that. A year on, a year older, they must make the experience count.