West Ham comeback shows they are righting previous wrongs

LONDON — West Ham United put themselves within touching distance of their first European final in 47 years with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over AZ Alkmaar in the first leg of the Europa Conference League semifinals on Thursday.

David Moyes’ Hammers looked lively early on, but Alkmaar took the lead through a low-hit 20-yard effort from Tijjani Reijnders just before half-time.

West Ham showed poise in the second half and led a spirited comeback. First, Jarrod Bowen won a penalty on 67 minutes, which Said Benrahma calmly dispatched, then shortly after Michail Antonio was alive to a loose ball in the Alkmaar penalty area and prodded the hosts to a narrow and crucial victory.

West Ham will travel to Alkmaar for the return leg on May 18, with the winner set to face either Basel or Fiorentina in the final.

Rapid reaction

1. Hammers in prime position to right last season’s wrongs

The ghosts of last season’s Europa League semifinal defeat to eventual winners Frankfurt would have been present this week: The memory of Frankfurt’s first-leg goal inside the first 50 seconds, of Aaron Cresswell being sent off inside 19 minutes in the second leg, of manager David Moyes becoming so overcome with frustration that he volleyed a ball at a ball girl. It could have been a joyous occasion. Instead, it became a nightmare.

Thursday’s clash with AZ Alkmaar, then, was about righting those wrongs and going one step further. A Europa Conference League semifinal may be a tier lower than the Europa League, but in West Ham’s eyes it is all the same: a rare chance at European glory.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
– Read on ESPN+: What next for Messi? Analysing his options

However, after 45 minutes at the London Stadium on Thursday, it looked as though history would repeat itself. West Ham had the better of the chances before Alkmaar took the lead on 41 minutes. Moyes raged on the touchline. It all seemed rather familiar.

Then came a change, though. Perhaps it was down to Alkmaar possessing far less quality than Frankfurt over a year ago that meant West Ham this time found the courage to come back into the game. Maybe it was evidence of a side feeding off that past experience and avenging past demons. Whatever it was, West Ham found a way back, then prodded ahead, and now carry a crucial advantage into the away leg in the Netherlands.

The Hammers within touching distance of the final in Prague on June 7, and so close to a piece of rare silverware.

2. If this is the West Ham swansong for Rice or Moyes, it will be a memorable one

Nobody around the London Stadium would be surprised if Declan Rice departed this summer in search of a grander stage. It has been widely discussed for some time. Fans are keenly aware, too.

One sign on Thursday — a painted bedsheet draped across one stand at the halfway line — read: “DEC PLEASE STAY.” Again, Rice provided all the evidence to show why West Ham will battle to keep him. He broke up counter-attacks, settled the side when they went behind and acted as a key lynchpin.

Should West Ham eventually lift the trophy, Rice will become the first West Ham captain to lift a European title since Bobby Moore in 1965. It would prove the ultimate ending. The perfect swansong.

And then there is David Moyes, the manager who once guided Everton to qualify for the Champions League and later succeeded the great Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, but this week said winning the Europa Conference League with West Ham would be the greatest achievement of his career. It means that much.

Multiple reports have said Moyes could be set to leave the club at the end of the season, with the board unsure whether he is the right man to take the club forward. Maybe a title would ensure his stay a little longer, or allow him to sign off as West Ham’s most successful manager in generations.

3. AZ give Hammers a tough time and punch above their weight

AZ Alkmaar showed all the hallmarks of an underdog who can manage an upset on Thursday. They’re a data-driven club — “Moneyball” guru Billy Beane is both an advisor and minority investor — and they pride themselves on outsmarting opponents.

AZ are the guys who punch above their weight, and Thursday’s narrow defeat at West Ham was perhaps their biggest punch yet.

In the end, the game proved too much for them. They were short of quality when they needed it most, never quite looking assured enough to control the game and put it out of West Ham’s reach.

A European trophy would be vindication of their philosophy, and a place in the final still a possibility. Manager Pascal Jansen’s side will relish a chance to bring the tie back to home territory and play free from expectation. That can be a dangerous weapon.

Best and worst performers

Best: Declan Rice, West Ham United

Another quality performance from the England international and again the heart of the team.

Best: Michail Antonio, West Ham United

He has popped up with important goals on many occasions in his West Ham career, but few could prove as crucial as his prod home on 76 minutes to ensure a lead heading into the away leg to the Netherlands next week.

Best: Tijjani Reijnders, AZ Alkmaar

Netted a superb 20-yard strike to open the scoring, even if goalkeeper Alphonse Areola should have done better to keep it out.

Worst: Lucas Paqueta, West Ham United

West Ham signed the Brazil international for occasions like this, but instead he looked a little off the pace, with his passing sloppy and lacking in threat.

Worst: Alphonse Areola, West Ham United

The goalkeeper should have done better to keep out the opening goal in a quiet game for him.

Worst: Matt Ryan, AZ Alkmaar

He produced a quality save early on to deny Said Benrahma, but he have away a penalty by hitting Jarrod Bowen in the face and was partly at fault for West Ham’s second goal, too.

Highlights and notable moments

AZ open the scoring in the 41st minute with a goal from Tijjani Reijnders.

West Ham came out after the break with renewed vigour, and after earning a penalty, Saïd Benrahma equalised from the spot.

Ten minutes later, the Hammers got their go-ahead goal, courtesy of Michail Antonio, who finished from close range on the ensuing scramble after a corner kick.

After the match: What the managers and players said

Post-match quotes will appear here when available. Please check back shortly…

Up next

West Ham United: The Hammers visit Brentford in Premier League action on Sunday, May 14 before resuming the Europa Conference League. The second leg of the semifinal will Alkmaar, Netherlands on Thursday, May 18.

AZ Alkmaar: AZ shift their focus to the Dutch Eredivisie where they host FC Emmen on Sunday, May 14 (stream live on ESPN at 2 p.m. ET). Then, the Europa Conference league picks back up when AZ host West Ham on Sunday, May 18 in the semifinal return leg.