West Ham face a Dutch reckoning this evening when they travel to the North Holland city of Alkmaar for the second leg of their Europa Conference League semi-final. Holding a slender 2-1 advantage from last Thursday’s opener, the Hammers must silence a passionate home support if they are to reach a first European final since 1976 and remain on course for their first senior trophy in 43 years.
A more adventurous approach at the London Stadium would surely have put the Hammers in pole position against what, on the day, was an underwhelming AZ Alkmaar outfit. The visitors enjoyed plenty of possession but had few ideas going forward. Even so, they had earned themselves a half-time lead courtesy of shoddy defensive covering and poor goalkeeping by the Hammer’s rear-guard. But West Ham were able to turn the tie around with a far more aggressive second half performance which clearly unsettled a shaky Alkmaar defence.
Chances are it will be a very different AZ side that we see today on home turf. Their record in front of their own supporters, both in Europe and domestically, is impressive and they have won all eight of the home fixtures played so far in this season’s Conference League. The return from suspension of Milos Kerkez, a fleet-footed 19-year-old full-back, will add an extra dimension to their attacking play which was badly missing in the first leg. They will be highly motivated to add a Premier League scalp to the list of conquests.
The big worry for West Ham fans is how will David Moyes approach the game. In his pre-match interviews, he was keen to point out that European football had been a new experience for the team last season and that they would have learned from the experience of the semi-final exit against Eintracht Frankfurt. A more pertinent question, however, might be what lessons did he take on board from the two legged defeat? Will he oversee yet another typically slow and timid start from his charges – one that again pays his opponent far too much respect – or does he demonstrate belief in his players having the talent and ability to cause major problems for the Alkmaar defence, and put the tie beyond doubt on their own terms?
It would be out of character for Moyes to allow players greater freedom, but maybe the players will take it on themselves not to let caution deny them a shot at glory in Prague next month. It is puzzling to see the Hammers still being described as a fast counter attacking team. That may have had some justification two seasons ago, but this term the statistics show only one goal (in the Premier League) being the result of a counterattack. Away from home especially, West Ham have become almost exclusively a set-piece team. We really do need to see more than that tonight.
Defeat for the Hammers second string at Brentford on Sunday told us little that we didn’t already know. The key takeaways being: despite last summer’s recruitment the squad depth and balance remains below standard, in the absence of Michail Antonio there isn’t even the semblance of an attacking plan, and the handball rule gets more ridiculous each week. The only player starting on Sunday to start again today is likely to be Nayef Aguerd, ironic in some ways because he had a hand in both of the goals conceded. He does, however, look more composed alongside Kurt Zouma. My predicted line-up is: Areola, Kehrer (or Coufal), Zouma, Aguerd, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Paqueta, Bowen, Antonio, Benrahma.
West Ham’s Dutch connection is not a strong one. The only previous competitive encounter with Dutch opponents was the stirring quarter final come-back against Den Haag – now floundering in the second tier of the Dutch league – in March 1976. And while the Premier League has seen a breath-taking array of Dutch talent pass through, including Bergkamp, van Persie, van Dijk, van Nistelrooy, Stam, Hasselbaink, Overmars, and Gullit, none of these have made it across to the east-end. The best the Hammers have been able to offer is Atteveld, Boere, and Boogers. Quite surprising that players from the Netherlands and Belgium are rarely on the West Ham radar.
Experience tells us that tonight will not be plain sailing. It’s just not the West Ham way. I have been growing my finger nails all week to ensure there is something to chew in the final 15 to 20 minutes as the Hammers retreat further and further back towards goal – and also allowing for extra time and penalties. I do believe with the right attitude we should be able to control the game and come away victorious on the night as well as on aggregate. I only see the manager getting in the way of that expectation. Or can he changes his ways? As Newcastle manager Joe Harvey might have said back in 1969 “Faint heart never won Fairs Cup.” Go for it, Dave. COYI!