Hammers show Dutch courage when all is Saïd and done
West Ham United showed impressive resilience to recover from a goal down and beat AZ Alkmaar 2-1 in a UEFA Europa Conference League (UECL) semi-final first leg, leaving De Kaasboeren with seven defeats from as many games on English soil.
There was a sizeable weight of expectation on the Hammers given the long 47-year wait since a side featuring Billy Bonds, Trevor Brooking and Pat Holland last played a European final in the Cup Winners Cup. With that in mind, David Moyes’ side started in measured fashion and looked for opportunities on the counter-attack against a possession-minded Alkmaar side. They managed to create a couple of early chances though, as Jarrod Bowen headed over from Declan Rice’s cross before Mathew Ryan made an outstanding one-handed stop to push Saïd Benrahma’s shot around the post.
Pascal Jansen’s men were passing the ball around comfortably and hit the Hammers with a sucker-punch shortly before HT when Tijjani Reijnders’ long-range strike took an awkward bounce in front of Alphonse Areola and flew into the net. West Ham’s players immediately surrounded referee Halil Umut Meler, protesting against Sam Beukema’s challenge on Lucas Paquetá in the build-up, but the goal stood.
The London Stadium crowd were growing increasingly restless after the break, with West Ham struggling to increase the intensity of their play. Bowen looked to take matters into his own hands with an effort from outside the box which sailed wide of Ryan’s left-hand post. The England international was involved in the thick of the action again, as the East Londoners were awarded a spot-kick after Ryan clattered into the winger as he failed to claim the ball in an aerial challenge. Benrahma was arguably West Ham’s brightest spark on the night, and he rifled home the subsequent spot-kick into the side netting to level the score.
The equaliser proved to be the turning point, as Michail Antonio put the Hammers in front just nine minutes later after reacting quickest to a loose ball inside the box following on from Yukinari Sugawara’s excellent clearance off the line. That was to be the Jamaica international’s final act, and he received a rapturous ovation before being replaced by Danny Ings.That change nearly paid immediate dividends, as Ings played a give and go with Benrahma, but the Algerian could not find the target with his close-range effort.
Moyes’ side could not add to their tally, but the Scot can reflect on a productive night’s work and will treasure being able to take a valuable lead into next week’s second leg at the AFAS Stadion. Meanwhile, this will feel like a missed opportunity for Jansen’s side, whose four-match unbeaten run in all competitions comes to an end.