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!