David Moyes admitted he was about to take off Michail Antonio before his finish gave West Ham a 2-1 lead over AZ in their European Conference League semi-final first leg.
The Dutch side took the lead four minutes before the break when Tijjani Reijnders beat Alphonse Areola at his near post after a controversial build-up, but, after a laboured start to the second half, Said Benrahma’s penalty brought the Hammers back into the game.
There was a momentum shift thereafter, and David Moyes’ side took the lead for the first time when Antonio was on hand to prod in after Nayef Aguerd’s header was cleared off the line.
Antonio’s 14th goal of the season – the best return of his eight campaigns in east London – was enough to hand West Ham the aggregate advantage heading into next Thursday’s return leg in the Netherlands.
“I was about to change him for Danny Ings,” Moyes revealed after the game. “I felt that we just needed another different way at the end, and maybe had it been five minutes earlier I might have taken him off.”
How West Ham rallied to seize control
Pyrotechnics, fireworks and a cauldron of noise lay in wait for the teams in east London as West Ham took the field for their second European semi-final in 12 months in an attempt to reach their first European final since 1976. It was an atmosphere fit for a final, let alone the last-four.
The Hammers were prepared to let their Dutch counterparts control possession in order to play on the counter and they carved out several chances as a result. Jarrod Bowen flicked a header over after Declan Rice’s cross, while Benrahma forced a fingertip save from ex-Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan and then shot wide from deep.
But their half-time expected goals figure of 0.71 from eight shots illustrated an absence of instinctiveness in the final third.
From nowhere, AZ took the lead – and in highly controversial circumstances. Sam Beukema appeared to shove Lucas Paqueta as the pair leapt for an aerial ball, but referee Halil Umut Meler allowed play to continue, with the ball being worked up the pitch to Reijnders, who took one touch and beat Areola.
West Ham’s drive appeared to have evaporated when the second half got going and the frustration in the stands grew with each poor final ball or cheap turnover. AZ were keeping control of the tie and doing a good job of it, too.
Then, the Hammers received a welcome lifeline. Ryan leapt to punch a cross clear, but was beaten to the ball by Bowen, who received a strong hand to the face and won a penalty for his troubles. Benrahma stepped up and applied the ideal combination of power and placement that left the Australian with no chance.
AZ were unable to nullify the momentum West Ham rapidly generated in the aftermath of the equaliser and, 14 minutes from time, they fell behind when Aguerd’s header was hooked off the line after Rice’s clipped ball in from the left. Antonio didn’t need a second invitation to finish from all of three yards.
Benrahma had two further chances to increase his side’s lead in the final 10 minutes. AZ had no response and by then, half the job was already done.
‘West Ham favourites after comeback win’
Former West Ham winger Matt Jarvis on Sky Sports News:
“Two-one is always a difficult score, but West Ham are the favourites now heading into next week’s second leg. It will be a different tactical battle now for AZ. Once they took the lead at the London Stadium they sat back a bit, but now they’ll have to come out of the blocks and attack.
“That is what West Ham like. They like to sit a bit deeper and counter-attack, which they did a lot in the first half of the first leg. It’s going to be an interesting tactical battle in Alkmaar, but if you are West Ham you are just delighted to take a lead into the second leg.
“I’ve seen West Ham a lot this season and it has not been great to watch for the most part. In recent weeks, when they have needed to get a result they have got it. That’s been the case all season. When there’s been desperation for a result they have found one. But now, they are starting to put some performances together. The players are starting to get back to where they were last season.
“It was a big result against Man Utd at the weekend and the win was massive against AZ Alkmaar. They are peaking just at the right time.”
Moyes: This club has a lot of resilience
West Ham manager David Moyes:
“I hugely believe we’ve got a big resilience here. I think we have it through the club, I think we have it through the team and we’ll need it. We’ve needed it in the games we have in the Premier League. But we’re just off a big win against Manchester United and we’ve won 2-1 in a semi-final first leg. You’d have to say that’s ok.
“When it’s a cup competition, it doesn’t really matter how you do it, really, the job is to get it done. We’ve not got it done yet, far from it. We’ve got a big job to do next week.
“I think the tie is very evenly balanced. There was very little in the game. If it was the other way round, if we were losing by a goal, I wouldn’t be in here saying we were out of the tie, I wouldn’t think AZ would be saying that either. The game is very tightly balanced.
“I didn’t think we gave up too many opportunities, even though we conceded a goal, but it was probably playing in the higher areas of the pitch that we didn’t do well enough to give ourselves a chance to get further in front.”
Analysis: Bouncebackability the story of West Ham’s season
Sky Sports’ Dan Long at the London Stadium:
“West Ham’s 1-0 win over Manchester United last time out went a long way towards securing their status as a Premier League club for another season. With nine points left to play for, they are seven clear of the bottom three. There’s less than a one per cent chance of a Championship return, so the probability tables say.
“Most clubs in their situation in the league would be happy to see the back of such a campaign, but, strangely, the Hammers still have the chance to make this season one of the most memorable in their history. They are halfway to a first European final in 47 years, after all.
“It was not straightforward, though. When the opener went in, it was both controversial and completely against the run of play. It was just one of referee Halil Umut Meler’s decisions that riled up the home crowd. He played by “prison rules” said Joe Cole on BT Sport.
“That took the wind out of the Hammers’ sails and they did not look capable of mounting a response early in the second half. But once Said Benrahma’s penalty hit the net – almost taking it off in the process – anything other than a West Ham win looked out of the question.
“It perhaps symbolised the way their season has panned out to date. They have faced their fair share of tough moments, but time and time again they have responded in the way they have needed to, keeping their heads above water. The only difference is that, this time, silverware – not Premier League survival – is on the line.”
West Ham return to domestic action on Sunday May 14, when they face Brentford at the Gtech Community Stadium at 2pm. Four days later, the Hammers travel to the Netherlands for the second leg of this Europa Conference League semi-final.
Hammers continuing to relish European competition – Opta stats
- West Ham have gone on to win each of their four matches in European competition this season when conceding the opening goal, also beating FCSB (September), Silkeborg IF (September) and KAA Gent (April) in the same manner they have beaten AZ Alkmaar.
- Including qualifying, West Ham have won 12 games in the Europa Conference League this season (13 games played), compared to 10 wins in the Premier League (35 games played).
- Michail Antonio has scored six goals in seven appearances in the Europa Conference League this season for West Ham; the only player to score more goals in the competition than him this term is Fiorentina’s Arthur Cabral, who has made 12 appearances.