The London Stadium was bathed in bubbles all the way through, but unlike the club’s anthem, there was no fading, no death, no fortune hiding, no searching everywhere. West Ham know exactly where it is.
It’s in Prague and they’re halfway to the Czech capital after last night. The Europa Conference League final awaits if David Moyes’ men can avoid throwing away this lead over AZ Alkmaar in next week’s second leg in the medieval city outside Amsterdam.
The 60,000 supporters at the London Stadium tried to inspire West Ham’s 11 players on the field, aware of how close this club is to their first trophy since 1980. How close to their first in Europe since 1965. How close to history if only they could find their way outside of Alkmaar.
They won the hard way here. Alkmaar took the lead – a poor goal to concede from a defensive and goalkeeping point of view – but West Ham mounted a comeback in the second half. Said Benrahma’s penalty kick and Mikhail Antonio’s tap-in left them in a dominant position and given how it all went, Moyes will accept this.
No one should make the mistake of thinking that West Ham is as good as done. Alkmaar is a young, talented, spirited team that frustrated their opponents here. Their potential cannot be underestimated.
Said Benrahma helped inspire West Ham’s comeback in their semi-final against AZ Alkmaar
The Algerian winger scored from the penalty spot to initiate the turnaround
Mikhail Antonio helped secure victory soon after, when he bundled the ball into a corner
West Ham analysts, who had done their homework on Alkmaar, had this week warned against the idea that this semi-final was a foregone conclusion. With an average age of 24, the Dutch visitors were the youngest team in the Conference League this season. Experienced? No. Without fear? Absolutely, and they held Ajax to a 0-0 draw at the Johan Cruijff Arena just days ago.
Alkmaar manager Pascal Jansen quoted Johan Cruijff before kick-off as saying that the late, great Dutchman once said he had ‘never seen a bag of money win a game’.
Alkmaar’s wage bill may be a tenth of West Ham’s. The capacity of the AFAS Stadium is possibly one third of that of the London Stadium. Their most expensive signing last summer was perhaps Jens Odgaard for £2.6m, while West Ham bought Lucas Paqueta for £51m.
But when it’s 11 against 11, anything can happen. West Ham pushed for Alkmaar from the start, Jarrod Bowen’s header from a Declan Rice cross flew over when unmarked.
A West Ham supporter had ruined their white sheet with red paint. “DEC,” it said, all in capital letters, “PLEASE STAY.” Rice is on the verge of leaving if a £100m bid is made this summer, meaning this would be his penultimate game at the London Stadium in a burgundy and blue shirt.
David Moyes’ side will take their 2-1 lead in next week’s second leg in the Netherlands
Tijani Reijnders had amazed the hosts with a long-range attempt in the first half of the game
Alkmaar was wasting time early on, goalkeeper Maty Ryan taking an age at goal kicks. After 12 minutes, only Ryan Benrahma’s fingertips refused the opener as his 25-yard curling iron was tipped wide. Super Strike. Save even better.
The visitors struggled to cope with Benrahma, who was the victim of tough challenges from both Alkmaar full-backs, Yukinari Sugawara and Mees de Wit, who had been shown a yellow card.
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER REVIEWS
WEST HAM (4-2-3-1): Areola 5; Kehrer 6, Zouma 6, Aguerd 6, Cresswell 6; Rice 7, Soucek 5.5; Bowen 6.5, Paqueta 7, Benrahma 7.5 (Fornals 90min); Antonio 7 (Ings 80).
Scorers: Benrahma 67 (pen), Antonio 75.
Administrator: David Moyes 6.5.
AZ ALKMAAR (4-2-3-1): Ryan 5.5; Sugawara 6.5, Beukema 6.5, Hatzidiakos 6.5, De Wit 6.5; Classie 6, Reijnders 7; Odgaard 6 (Lahdo 68, 6), Mijnans 6, Van Brederode 6 (Mihailovic 80); Pavlidis 6.
Goal scorer: Reijnders 41.
Booked: De Wit, Clasie, Ryan.
Administrator: Pascal Jansen 6.5.
Referee: Halil Umut Meler (Turkey) 5.
West Ham dominated for the first 30 minutes, yet Alkmaar tried to kill time and yet Turkish referee Halil Umut Meler did little to dissuade them. When Odgaard fell down holding his face and claimed Rice caught him passing, he wasted a few more seconds. Replays showed that there was no contact.
Meler made no friends at Stratford, especially when West Ham felt Paqueta was pushed in the back by Sam Beukema. Sixteen seconds later, Alkmaar scored.
They flew forward at high speed and, with Tomas Soucek slowly closing in, Tijjani released Reijnders from 25 metres. It was a nice hit, but Alphonse Areola should have avoided nesting in his net.
VAR Paolo Valeri watched the push on Paqueta but decided it wasn’t enough to nullify the opener and Alkmaar led 1-0 at half time.
The atmosphere at the London Stadium had changed. Where it was carnivalesque at first, it was now tense, although ironic cheers were heard in the 58th minute when Meler finally warned an Alkmaar player about wasting time, captain Jordy Clasie the culprit.
In the 65th minute, an important decision fell in favor of West Ham. A cross from Paqueta led to a header from Soucek that got into the mix again. Bowen jumped for the ball. He headed toward him, but Ryan punched him stupidly in the side of the head.
Penalty kick, Meler said. Ryan protested, but it was clear. Benrahma stepped up and coolly buried it in the bottom corner for 1-1.
Ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Mat Ryan fouled Jarrod Bowen in the penalty area in the second half
When he and several of his West Ham teammates celebrated with the corner flag, Moyes took no pleasure in it. He ordered his players to get back into position to resume play as soon as possible. He wanted a winner in these last 20 minutes. He soon had that too.
In the 75th minute, a corner was not cleared by Alkmaar. Rice thought the ball into the box so that Aguerd could head towards goal. It was cleared on the line by Sugawara, but only by Antonio, who graciously accepted the tap to make it 2-1.
Just in time too, as West Ham had given the substitution card to fourth official Maurizio Mariani, so that Antonio was replaced by Danny Ings.
From 1-0 to 2-1, West Ham supporters brought one last smashing rendition of Forever Blowing Bubbles. They are now halfway to Prague.