West Ham are through to their first European final since 1976 after beating AZ Alkmaar 1-0 to progress 3-1 on aggregate in the Europa Conference League.
Having been knocked out in the Europa League semi-finals just over a year ago after a naive performance at Eintracht Frankfurt in the second leg, West Ham showed they had learned their lesson with a measured display to see out the tie.
West Ham’s slender advantage from the first leg allowed them to sit back and soak up the Dutch side’s attacks, but AZ did not put the visitors under much pressure – finishing the game with just two shots on target. Lucas Paqueta went close to scoring when he hit the post in the first half before substitute Pablo Fornals secured the Hammers’ spot in the final with a stoppage-time winner.
David Moyes’ side will face Fiorentina, who scored a 129th-minute winner against Basel in the other semi-final, in the final of the Europa Conference League on Wednesday June 7 in Prague. West Ham, who are 15th in the Premier League, can secure passage to the Europa League next season if they are able to win their first major trophy since 1980.
How the Hammers made history
West Ham’s first-leg advantage allowed them to set up on the counter-attack, while AZ Alkmaar were happy to dominate possession. The Dutch side, though, were passive and struggled to break down the Hammers.
Nerves played their role in the opening 45 minutes with neither side delivering a shot on target. Jarrod Bowen snatched at a chance from the edge of the box to send it wide, while West Ham rushed their passing in transition, miscuing passes for Michail Antonio on more than one promising occasion.
Paqueta went close for the Hammers as he struck a post with a curling effort just inside the area, but there were few other moments of inspiration to speak of for either side as West Ham weathered a late AZ surge to go in at the break level.
The hosts came out with much more urgency when play resumed with Alphonse Areola forced into two saves to keep out efforts from range by Sven Mijnans and Pantelis Hatzidiakos. Declan Rice had a long-range strike of his own saved well by former Brighton and Arsenal goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
Thilo Kehrer nearly levelled the tie for AZ as his attempted back pass almost found its way into the goal but fortunately for him Areola was able to scramble across to clear. Areola then nearly made a costly error as he spilled the ball when coming to claim a long pass forward, but he was reprieved by the referee, who called it a foul.
Substitute Fornals then took advantage of his fresh legs to surge through the tired AZ defence and score with a composed finish in stoppage-time to put the tie out of reach and seal West Ham’s spot in the final.
Moyes: I wanted ‘team player’ Fornals to score!
West Ham manager David Moyes told BT Sport: “We’re thrilled. It’s a huge achievement for West Ham. It’s hard enough to get to any final, never mind a European final.
“We were in a semi-final last year and sometimes you can say it’s a one-off, but maybe doing it two years in a row, we’ve got very close. The big bit now is to go and win the final.
“AZ play with a really good style and Dutch football is really good and the first leg, they probably gave us a shock with how they played at times. I knew if we didn’t sit a bit deeper and wait on the moments, we probably had three or four counter-attack moments where we could have done better.
“We’d have liked to wrestle more possession off them, but, to be fair, they’re very good at what they do.
“It’s hugely pleasing [to see Fornals score] because he’s a massive team player and he’s been instrumental in how we’ve finished sixth and seventh over the last two years and got goals and runs for the team.
“If there was anyone I wanted to score tonight, it would’ve been Pablo Fornals.”
‘Emotional’ Cresswell: I can’t wait for the final
Aaron Cresswell admitted his emotions were running high after righting the wrongs of his sending off in last season’s semi-final by producing a solid performance to reach the Europa Conference League final.
“With the disappointing season we’ve had in the Premier League, I’m sure every West Ham fan is delighted,” he said.
“For me personally, I’m emotional. To be in a final is massive and this club deserves it. It’s been a long time and let’s hope we can go one more step.
“We knew what they were all about. They’re a good possession-based team, they’ve got some good players and we knew from the first leg, if we can keep it tight… we created a couple of chances, we just couldn’t score them.
“Solid defensively, clean sheet and what a way to win it in the last minute.
“We talked about not getting caught up in the moment and it’s just another game. Last year was very disappointing and for me, it was a massive low in my career. What a win tonight and I’m so happy we’re in the final. I can’t wait.
“We’ll enjoy tonight and we’ll look to go forward in a couple of weeks.”
Sunday 21st May 12:30pm
Kick off 1:30pm
West Ham will be back on Sky Sports on Super Sunday when they host Leeds in the Premier League; kick-off 1.30pm. Their final league game of the season will be a trip to Leicester on Sunday May 28; kick-off 4.30pm.
The final of the Europa Conference League will be be played on Wednesday June 7 in Prague.
Opta stats – West Ham unbeaten in Europe this season
West Ham have reached the final of a major European competition for the third time in their history, after 1964-65 (Cup Winners’ Cup – winners) and 1975-76 (Cup Winners’ Cup – runners-up).
AZ Alkmaar were unbeaten in 25 home matches in European competition coming into this match (W17 D8) – West Ham are the first side to defeat them away from home in Europe since Lyon in February 2017.
West Ham remain unbeaten in Europe this season, winning 13 times and drawing once, with 33 goals scored and eight conceded.
West Ham have won 25 games in all competitions this season, with over half of them coming in European competition (13).
West Ham manager David Moyes has reached the final of a cup competition for the second time in his career as a manager, also contesting the FA Cup final in 2008-09 with Everton.
Leave a Reply