Going Dutch: West Ham Require Courage To Complete Double Over AZ Alkmaar

Can West Ham go one better than last season to reach a Euro semi-final. It would provide a silver lining to a dismal season but are David Moyes and his team brave enough to pull it off?

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!

Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again? Or Can West Ham Navigate The A to Z Of Alkmaar To Reach Euro Final

We have all been here before. The Europa Conference is a chance to add a silver lining to West Ham’s otherwise dismal season. Can the Hammers go one step further than last year as they prepare to face a dangerously underrated AZ Alkmaar side?

It was just over twelve months ago that West Ham faced Eintracht Frankfurt in a first leg tie of the Europa League semi-final at the London Stadium. Excitement and expectations were high but on the night the Hammers were distinctly second best and were fortunate to come out of the match with just a single goal deficit. Aaron Cresswell’s foolish red card in the opening 20 minutes of the return leg effectively ended any hope of a stirring comeback. The disappointment of missing out on the final haunting the club well into this season.

The second UEFA semi-final in a row is, of course, a rung lower on the Euro ladder – a competition that receives little media attention. West Ham’s progress to the semi-final has been largely plain sailing-the only exception being a sub-par performance in the drawn quarter-final away leg at Gent – the one game out of 12 in the competition that the Hammers failed to win. The semi-final tie against a youthful and energetic AZ Alkmaar side, however, promises to be a much tougher proposition.

Interestingly, West Ham’s form going into tonight’s game is slightly ahead of what it it was in the same period last year, where the Hammers had saved their best performances for Europa League clashes with Sevilla and Lyon, while domestic form nosedived after the new year. Hopefully, the energy shown in the deserved win against Manchester United can be the boost needed to ensure history does not repeat itself.

For AZ, tonight’s game will be their 17th match in this season’s Europa Conference, having entered at the Second Qualifying stage. They have won 13 of the previous 16 games and finishing top of Group E before beating Lazio (in both legs) in the Round of 16 and Anderlecht (on penalties) in the Quarter Final.

They are no stranger to European competition having participated in 21 different seasons, including one entry each into the European Cup and Champions League. Their best achievement to date was as runners-up to Ipswich, over two legs, in the 1981 UEFA Cup Final.

Alkmaar currently sit fourth in the Eredivisie with three games to play, two points behind Ajax in third, with whom they played out a scoreless draw at the weekend. I’ve no direct experience of watching AZ but reports speak of a young side that aims to control a high percentage of tactical possession in order to draw out opponents. They play with fluidity and movement with pacey, attacking full-backs and penetrating midfield runs from deep. It all sounds rather Brighton-esque to me – and we know how that usually turns out.

There are a several familiar Premier League names in the squad with Matty Ryan (ex-Brighton) in goal, Bruno Martins Indi (ex-Stoke) in defence, and Jordy Clasie (ex-Southampton) in midfield. Heading a group of talented youngsters are full-backs Yukinari Sugawara and Milos Kerkez (suspended today) and midfielders Sven Mijnans and Jesper Karlsson (doubtful). The main goal threat comes from Greek international striker, Vangelis Pavlidis.

AZ are managed by London born, Pascal Jansen – his British mother was a one-time pop-star in the band Spooky and Sue. Jansen has managed the side since December 2020 when Arend Slot left to manage Feyenoord. Previous incumbents of the AZ hot-seat include Louis Van Gaal, Ronald Koeman, Dick Advocaat and Marco Van Basten.

In his post-match press conference, David Moyes claimed that getting to the European Conference Final would be the highlight of his managerial career. It would be a fine achievement and I hope he achieves it – but it is possibly not the greatest return from a 25-year career.

If West Ham are to progress, they will need to be alert and focused from the first to last whistle. This will be a stern test against an opponent with the kind of attributes that have routinely bewildered the Hammers in previous encounters. The sluggish opening 20 to 25 minutes which has been a far too frequent feature of West Ham performances needs to be left in the changing rooms. It was even evident in Sunday’s otherwise excellent win against Manchester United. I would take the rampant, swaggering West Ham that we saw in the second half against the Red Devils to win today’s tie comfortably, but it is an all too rare occurrence these days.

The psychological disadvantage of playing the first leg at home is always a concern even though the scrapping of the away goals rule has diminished much of the logical difference. Will Moyes and the team have learned from last years’ experience when they paid the price for a slow start and failure to plan for and adapt to the opponent’s positive approach? They will underestimate Alkmaar at their peril.

A potential point of unpredictability tonight is the appointment of young Turkish referee, Halil Umut Meler as the man in the middle. In 23 games officiated this season he has brandished a prolific 101 yellow and eight red cards. Perhaps some comfort that the majority of these have been in the Turkish Super Lig which I imagine might be prone to volatility. In six UEFA games, his record is 19 yellows and one red – the red a very clear and obvious professional foul (Aaron, please take note!) 

Moyes will no doubt field his strongest possible starting eleven tonight – last Sunday’s side except for Alphonse Areola replacing Lukasz Fabianski. It should be enough to get a result but any side that can beat Lazio home and away cannot be taken lightly. In a disappointing, depressing season for West Ham, success in this competition would produce an unexpected silver lining. There is a lot riding on this game. COYI!