Conference League
West Ham United 2-1 AZ Alkmaar 

Thursday, 11th May 2023
by Chris Wilkerson

It was tense, it was tight, and it was in danger of being completely ruined by a substandard referee, but West Ham will take a 2-1 lead into the second leg away in Alkmaar after a comeback win against AZ at the London Stadium.

A controversial first half effort from Tijani Reijnders was enough to give the visitors a half-time lead, but it was cancelled out by a penalty from the superb Sa??d Benrahma and a scrambled goal from Michail Antonio to turn the momentum in West Ham's favour in this Europa Conference League semi-final.

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The mood could have been very different, and this report almost entirely about the officiating, had it not been for a second-half revival that looked a long way from coming as The Hammers struggled to get to grips with a massive game.

They were not helped by a refereeing display that had 60,000 enraged and off their seats, with the Turkish official missing clear fouls on far too many occasions, and looking way out of his depth.

This was underlined by a crucial error in the lead to the Dutch side's goal as Lucas Paquet?? was floored by a blatant shove when competing for a header.

It was ignored, and West Ham were punished, but the players looked to have let it overwhelm them in the opening 15 minutes of the second half. Thankfully, Benrahma pulled them back into the game.

The West Ham team included one surprise as Kurt Zouma returned after a small spell on the sidelines injured. He and Areola were the two changes from Sunday's crucial victory over Manchester United.

Their opponents AZ came with two key players missing - their left back and left winger - but the side nicknamed Kaaskoppen (The Cheese Heads) came with a confident plan and were comfortable playing slow possession football that frustrated their hosts. From the crowd, it appeared they would have happily spent 90 minutes passing between centre back and goalkeeper, and they were happy to waste time from the first whistle. This was encouraged by the weak referee, who sanctioned only one player and late into the second half.

Whilst the West Ham crowd were audibly frustrated by the way AZ played, nearly as much as the time wasting, The Hammers looked prepared, holding a 4-4-2 shape when pressing short goal kicks and allowing the defence to play in their own penalty area. Whether the Dutch side were playing so short around their goalkeeper to draw their opponents on or not remains to be seen, but the home side held firm, tried to block progression into central areas and looked to be hoping to force their visitors to go long.

It made for a stale affair, a chess match with no intent to threaten, and West Ham's comfort in allowing AZ to play their passing game definitely left their own fans frustrated.

It must be said, for the most part, AZ looked a team who had all the ideas until the final third, where they often turned back and recycled possession round once more as the West Ham defence settled deep and stayed patient, waiting to defend more aggressively in dangerous areas. The Dutch side may look very different next week when left back Milos Kerkez returns, the 19-year-old currently leading the competition's assist table.

There were cries for Moyes's side to press more aggressively as the fans saw their side too easily allow the game to go to AZ's plan. In fairness, this was something West Ham improved as the game went on, but it should be no surprise to see this side pick and choose their moments. This is what they do, and it will not be the first nor last game where Moyes's side wait to judge their opponents and their game plan before looking to be more forceful with their play.

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It was with this tentative rhythm that AZ were allowed to have the running of the first half. Both sides threatened goal in equal measure, albeit very limited either end, and whilst AZ had moments resulting in weak shots, West Ham had threatened with a Bowen header.

The best moment of the opening 45 minutes was a fantastic Benrahma effort, as the Algerian reacted to a loose ball around 20 yards from goal and bent a low curler to the far post.

Mat Ryan deserves all the plaudits for his save, the ex-Brighton ?EUR~keeper at full stretch and using the tip of his thumb to just flick the ball around his post.

It was a rare glimpse of promise in a half that really only grew interesting as the referee frustrated The Hammers.

To focus on a referee so much is unfair, but the performance clearly rattled West Ham's players, and the crowd were vociferous in their disdain.

It came to a head in the final few minutes before half-time. A ball was contested in the air by Paquet?? and the Brazilian was given both hands in the back as he was pushed by the defender behind him. It was a clear foul, but the referee was unmoved.

AZ progressed the ball into space as West Ham floundered to recover, and as Reijnders lined up his shot 25 yards from goal, he was never closed down. The midfielder took his time and blasted a low and bouncing effort at goal to Areola's right.

It was well within the goalkeeper's grasp, but he seemed to be beaten by a sharp bounce in front of him and the ball almost went through him and his effort to save it. It should never have gone in - and would not have worn Fabianski in goal - but it had, and the away side had the lead just before half-time.

The West Ham players surrounded the referee, but VAR is weak on such calls. Given it was 20 seconds before the goal, it was deemed not important enough an incident for the intervention of our video official friends, and the goal stood.

It looked like even the players agreed as the stadium lamented the referee's onanism, and there was a feeling of being hard done by throughout the stadium as the half-time whistle blew, and boos echoed around at the dissatisfactory officiating.

The manager admitted after the game that he was unhappy with his side's first-half performance, but he will have been dismayed by how they started the second half.

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The West Ham players appeared to share in the negativity, and they played the opening 15 minutes of the second half like they felt they were on a hiding to nothing.

All, that is, except two men. The most notable was Benrahma, who had his right back terrified throughout. Sugawara has caught attention himself as an attacking full back, but Benrahma seemed to have the measure of him, and he seemed to know it, too.

Throughout the game, first and second half, Benrahma just looked confident. Thursday Night Benrahma is a different beast, backing himself in ways that he does not in the Premier League.

Nayef Aguerd, too, looked a man who refused to be beaten. It was not a perfect performance from the centre back, but his pace, his aerial power and a growing leadership meant he pulled up others with him.

But it was Benrahma who really lifted his teammates and the crowd. When it was flat, when the midfield three looked lost, Benrahma was still playing his game. It got the crowd up when they had little else to cheer and only fear in their heads, and it eventually raised his teammates, too. Most notably, Paqueta went from a disastrous 15?EUR"20 minutes that could have seen him replaced and brought back the fire in the Brazilian. It should not be understated just how psychologically important Benrahma's bravery on the ball was to a game that was getting away from West Ham.

Still, there was little created in the final third. There had been glimpses, and it could all have been different had Rice played Paqueta through on goal in the first half when making a big interception around the AZ box, but the Hammers started to lift themselves.

What Benrahma had done to ignite the crowd started to resonate. These European knockout nights are intense at the London Stadium. It might not be the Boleyn, but 60,000 West Ham fans writhing with desperation for success will make a lot of noise.

Once the home side got a sniff and some momentum, they were carried further along by that support, the fans whipping the support up even more on corners and attacks. Bowen can take the credit there, cutting in from the right and fizzing a shot just wide as he hit hard with his left. It was a nothing moment, in many ways, but it was the first real signs of threat in the second half, and it gave a rampant crowd something to get behind. That extra noise woke up the players.

It was a spark, and a spark that started the fire.

West Ham began to play, started to knock on the door and finally threaten AZ's defence as they came at them. Benrahma now had a team with him, Paqueta arriving into the game and starting to dazzle. The pair played games with the AZ players when they got into their flow together, the flicks and tricks in unison a real joy.

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Whilst Rice was subdued as he held midfield, aware that conceding again could well have killed the tie, and Soucek struggled on the ball, but now Antonio's hard work was being rewarded with passes he could actually play off, Bowen was getting brought into things and the full backs were getting forward.

Zouma and Aguerd were having no problems at all containing Pavlidis up front, and West Ham were now flowing forward. And they were soon rewarded.

About four minutes after that Bowen effort livened things up, West Ham had their chance to level.

It came from a big chance of its own. Benrahma, Cresswell and Paqueta combined on the left and the Brazilian curled in a cross to Bowen.

Close to goal, Bowen rose highest and got onto his header, but again headed over from close range. As the fans groaned, the West Ham players had immediately turned to appeal, and just before the crowd could join them, the referee was pointing to the spot.

As the fans had concentrated on the missed chance, they didn't spot the Australian in the AZ goal punching at the ball, missing completely and instead wiping out Bowen completely.

After a tense wait for VAR to confirm the decision, it was up to that man, the only man it should have been on this occasion, Sa??d Benrahma.

I will be honest, I didn't watch. I spent a great deal of time waiting for it to be taken by staring at the gut of the man behind me, and even that was through my fingers.

But Benrahma is a very good penalty taker. The delay did nothing to him, the Algerian smashing it into the side netting, beating Ryan to his right even as the goalkeeper dived the right way.

Now the fear was gone, and this was West Ham's to win. AZ no longer found luck passing around West Ham or going over them. They had smartly used the long ball for the first hour, often throwing it forward when their midfield had pushed up to pick up the scraps, but now West Ham were first to everything.

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It had gone from a game West Ham were floundering in to one they looked destined to win. They flowed forward, Kehrer in particular making inroads down the right on many occasions, although rarely with the right ball at the end.

But where was a vital goal going to come from for this side? Of course, it was a corner.

This one went to the back post, deflecting off Zouma's chest, and was retrieved with brilliant composure by Rice, who controlled the ball on the line, touched it back onto his right, steadied himself and clipped it back into the six-yard box.

It was headed at goal by Aguerd, but his shot was stopped on the line by a defender. His stop could only deflect it down into the middle of the six-yard box once more, and the first to react was Antonio, instantly moving to and flicking the ball in from three yards to give his side the lead with 15 minutes to go.

60,000 erupted, relief and joy in equal measure, the difficulty of celebrating a late goal whilst knowing there is still a second leg to play.

West Ham searched for a third, all the while keeping the door closed behind them and making sure to protect their lead.

Ings was brought on for the final 10 as Antonio's race was run, and it may have been the striker's best substitute performance for his new side. He has often come on and looked out of place, but he filled in perfectly here, getting involved in the good passing play from Paqueta and Benrahma, using his freshness to add energy to the attack and work harder than the defenders.

It nearly paid off perfectly. A wonderful move started and ended by Benrahma on the left, exchanging passes with Ings, saw the striker cleverly flick a lay-off in the box into the path of Benrahma running in.

The Algerian was in space, the ball was set perfectly to him and the goal was only 10 yards away, but he got it wrong, got under the ball as he tried to pass it into the far corner, instead firing over. He had earned his miss, so instrumental was his play in getting West Ham back into the game.

West Ham ended the game with their lead intact, a one-goal lead enough to give them something to protect away in Alkmaar. AZ have 29 points from their 15 home games this season, and 32 from their 16 away. That would give some hope, if it hadn't been for West Ham only 12 away points from their 17 games on the road this season.

But their manager is right, David Moyes saying his side have the resilience to use the lead. The late-season form has shown much more of that, and one more big game could see them in their first European final in nearly 50 years.

Once more, lads. Once more.

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Manager's Rating

David Moyes 7/10
Well, this is a hard one to judge. The team were flat and looked too passive, and then they came out for the second half and were worse. Most were desperate for changes, but when it clicked, it all worked very well, and the ends justified the means. Work to be done, but a lead is a lead.

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Player Ratings

Alphonse Areola
Failed his big test, and he was barely tested otherwise. Should have saved it, no doubting that, it was a big error. Could use game time in the league now to sharpen him up.

Thilo Kehrer
Defended well, and it was good to see him joining the attacks in the second half, although his end product clearly needs some work. Growing into this side with time.

Aaron Cresswell
Another very solid performance, especially covering round the back of the defence. Looked aware of the danger, supported Benrahma but stayed disciplined with it. Looks fresh and like time out of the side has helped.

Kurt Zouma
Decisive when he needed to be, and West Ham maintained a very good defensive structure without the ball, not really ever allowing their opponents a good chance.

Nayef Aguerd
His recovery pace was very useful, but what was important was the confidence and command he showed on the ball. A few runs forward, controlled passing, and a performance with real leadership. Lost the ball a few times heading down long balls, but AZ had been smart in triggering their midfield to respond.

Declan Rice
Was a quiet game by Rice?EUR(TM)s standards, although it appeared he was placed in front of the defence and disciplined in the second half to ensure no breakaways from AZ. He did his job well after not really imposing himself on the game first half, and his composure for the second goal was brilliant.

Tomas Soucek
His first half was rough, lost in the way AZ played confidently on the ball. He couldn?EUR(TM)t get control of it himself, couldn?EUR(TM)t get to grips with the runners and was slack on their goal, especially as the system would dictate he?EUR(TM)s out to the goalscorer. Improved in the second half, held the midfield well with Rice.

Lucas Paqueta
When he was good, he was a joy to watch. But he abject at the start of the second half and was lucky to stay on. Came to life with Benrahma and his touch is often superb.

Said Benrahma
Head and shoulders above everyone else as the best player on the pitch. Had he scored the late chance, he would have rightly earned a rare 10/10. Even when things didn?EUR(TM)t come off at the end of it all, his threat carried a team that was losing its way and eventually, he dragged the others with him.

Jarrod Bowen
Drifted out of the game but worked very hard to cover his wing and be a threat down the flank. Missed chances, and they could have been costly. But he was a threat, he got on the end of things, won the penalty, and he?EUR(TM)ll likely score if given the same chances again in a week.

Michail Antonio
Worked hard, was often given very little to work with, and continued to pull the defence around even as the referee allowed open season on pushing him. It was a fine game, if not particularly good, but then he reacts so quickly for the goal, such a crucial goal, that it really lifts the performance.


Danny Ings
(Replaced Antonio 79) For a cameo performance, it was very bright and shows promise that Ings will not be only remembered for two goals against Forest. There could be something to him in this team if he keeps up what he did last night.

Pablo Fornals
(Replaced Benrahma 90) Stoppage time sub.

Lukasz Fabianski
Did not play.

Joseph Anang
Did not play.

Ben Johnson
Did not play.

Emerson Palmieri
Did not play.

Freddie Potts
Did not play.

Flynn Downes
Did not play. Other unused subs: Maxwel Cornet, Divin Mubama

Manuel Lanzini
Did not play. Other unused subs: Maxwel Cornet, Divin Mubama

Match Facts

West Ham United: Alphonse Areola, Thilo Kehrer, Aaron Cresswell, Kurt Zouma, Nayef Aguerd, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Lucas Paqueta, Said Benrahma, Jarrod Bowen, Michail Antonio.

Goals: Said Benrahma 67 Michail Antonio 76                .

Booked: Lucas Paqueta 57          .

Sent off: None.

AZ Alkmaar: Ryan, Sugawara, Beukema, Hatzidiakos, M. de Wit, Clasie, Mijnans, Reijnders, Odgaard (Lahdo 68), van Brederode (Mihaliovic 80), Pavlidis.

Subs not used: Verhulst, Deen, Yusuf Barasi, Bazoer, Vanheusden, Buurmeester, Meerdink, Goes.

Goals: Reijnders (41).

Booked: De Wit (13), Clasie (-), Ryan (64).

Sent off: None.

Referee: Halil Umut Meler.

Attendance: 62,471.

Man of the Match: Said Benrahma.