Conference League
AZ Alkmaar 0-1 West Ham United 

Thursday, 18th May 2023
by Chris Wilkerson

David Moyes's West Ham United are through to the Europa Conference League Final in Prague on Wednesday 7 June after a 1-0 win in Alkmaar sealed a 3-1 aggregate victory in their European semi-final. Bloody hell.

On a night that will live long in the memory, West Ham produced a defensive masterclass and delivered a late knockout blow to navigate their way past AZ Alkmaar on the road that leads them now to a final against Fiorentina.

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Ugly scenes marred the end of the night, as upset AZ "ultras" attempted to storm the stand where the players' families and friends sat, with many of the West Ham players involved in fractious altercations as they attempted to protect loved ones, but nothing could take the shine off The Hammers reaching their first European final since 1976.

And who better to score a dramatic goal in stoppage time than Pablo Fornals, coming off the bench to seal the tie, his gorgeous goal sending the fans into raptures, the Spaniard as emotional as ever as he roared to the West Ham fans in celebration.

There were tears on the pitch as the players and staff celebrated at full time, mostly from Mark Noble, and there were tears across the world from Hammers celebrating with pride, relief and the purest of joys. On a night where football everywhere delivered its dramatic best, you just have to pity those who don't get it.

Moyes and his side took a 2-1 aggregate lead to the AFAS Stadion after a battling performance at the London Stadium had seen them come from behind against their confident Dutch opponents.

AZ had overturned a 2-0 deficit in the quarter finals, and they had seen their side boss possession for much of the first leg against The Hammers, so their confidence was not without justification.

They were also unbeaten across their past 25 home matches in Europe. Before this glorious night, the Dutch side had only ever lost once at home to an English team, and that loss, back in 2007, ended three decades and 32 games without a European defeat in this red and white corner of northern Holland. Who did they lose to? David Moyes' Everton.

And whilst reports will focus mostly on West Ham's triumph and AZ's idiotic minority, it deserves saying that this was a team playing attractive and skilful football that stretched and tested West Ham to their limits.

That needs to be said, not only to celebrate what AZ brought even in defeat, but to illustrate how well West Ham played to keep them at bay in this second leg.

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This was a Moyes masterclass. It was everything his detractors said could only lead to failure, a defence-first solution to winning a crucial fixture.

The manager kept faith in the team that had roared back to life in the second half of that first leg last week, even with Coufal fit and challenging to regain his spot at right back. Thilo Kehrer's recent form has changed right back from a position of concern to one of strength, and the German delivered another fantastic display.

One thing you can say about the solid, disciplined game plan is that it does nothing for the anxious fan. This was a performance of magnificent control, but it can take years from your life.

The game started with a frenetic energy as the hosts looked to get at their visitors early. There was a difference to AZ in this game, their left side revamped by the returns of the impressive left back Milos Kerkez and mercurial Swedish winger Jesper Karlsson.

Where last week, attacks down the left seemed to end each time in a steady and safe pass back inside, the pair added a dynamism and intent that gave Bowen and Kehrer a completely different challenge on the flank.

The Swede seemed to be the focal point, the star they would rely on to produce something memorable. He and Kerkez certainly tried, with a large part of their play focused down the left, but they were matched and mostly bettered by the combination of Bowen and Kehrer, ably supported by Soucek and Zouma, to keep West Ham in control.

Whilst the possession stats would give the impression the home side bossed the game - a 64-36 in their favour. But you would have to know little about David Moyes's West Ham to believe that as read, because this side can play very comfortably without the ball.

What they had failed to add for much of last week's match was a counter-attacking threat, but they found it here in Alkmaar, and it changed the tone of the game completely. Whilst AZ may have controlled possession, it was West Ham who looked the more dangerous.

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All they missed was that final touch. Bowen snatched at an early half chance, and Paqueta made a couple wonderful breaks up field but failed with the final pass.

The Brazilian has stepped up recently and was superb again here, floating between midfield and attack, helping West Ham to break as they defended in a 4-4-2, lead by him and Antonio.

Until Fornals's stoppage time winner, it was the Brazilian who had come closest after another brilliant counter.

Rice had played the ball to Antonio on the halfway line, and the striker introduced his marker to the physicality and skill he can find in one move. Antonio backed into his man, buffeted him aside and turned to run at the exposed defence. His pass to the right was perfect for Paqueta, who carried, cut inside onto his left and curled an effort to the far corner which beat Mat Ryan in the AZ goal, but could only find the outside of the post.

It was one of a flurry of half chances. Benrahma should have done better when finding a pocket of space on the edge of the area, but blazed over when set for better, before Antonio and Soucek combined in the AZ box, but Ryan did well to cut out the Czech midfielder's square ball.

The slender lead gave the fixture a tense backdrop, a goal for either team would completely change the tone of proceedings.

It's why every moment inside the West Ham box made the heart falter. It didn't help that there was the odd moment of panic, especially true moments before half time as a shot inside the box was sliced across the face of goal, forcing Areola to close down an AZ forward on the byline. His eventual cutback was met by a solid shot, and that was met by a better block to force it wide.

Paqueta had another half-chance just before the break after Antonio laid the ball back to him in the Az box, but the Brazilian couldn't get over the bouncing ball and hit it high.

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It was the last meaningful action of the first half, a half in which neither goalkeeper was forced into a save, but a gripping contest of two competing approaches.

Neither side changed at the break, both in line-up and mentality.

Any West Ham fan who had found calmness in the break was quickly reminded of the anxiety as Kerkez found space on the left and hit a low ball across the face of goal, the ball both flying too fast when approaching any West Ham player, but agonisingly slowly when rolling into space, but there was no AZ player to meet it.

A minute later, a soft shot from the edge of the box forced Areola into a simple first save of the match. Rice quickly responded with one of his own, his effort from 25 yards bouncing devilishly in front of Matt Ryan and forcing the goalkeeper to palm wide.

The other threat so far unmentioned in this report was striker Vangelis Pavlidis. The Greek forward has a record slightly better than 1-in-2 for the Dutch side, but he struggled with the pace, skill and strength of Aguerd and Zouma. He seemed to live offside in the second half, desperate to find an edge on two men who had the beating of him.

His best moment came from two simple straight passes that cut West Ham apart, and must have caused their manager some real fury.

One pass beat the midfield, the second split the defence. Pavlidis ran through, but was matched by Aguerd. As the Greek striker looked to pull the trigger in the box, round came the challenge from Aguerd. The Moroccan was smart, even cute in how he used his body to stop the attacker without fouling him. He leaned on his man and levered down into the challenge, not getting the ball, but blocking what the striker wanted to do with it.

Pavlidis went down, and in desperation appealed for a penalty, but there was nothing to give.

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It was an indication of the chaos the last 20 minutes would bring. AZ knew they could no longer just control possession, they needed to really force something to happen. West Ham knew that they could defend a lead, and still had that counter-attacking threat.

Now there were incidents all over. At one end Bowen was around the defence and cutting back into the middle, only for the ball to evade all his teammates.

At the other end, Kehrer was brilliant as he blocked a Karlsson shot after it looked like the winger had finally found space in the final third.

With Benrahma tiring, his influence waning, on came Fornals with 15 minutes left to play. The Spaniard is perfect for such a moment, a direct passer who can expose space, he also works tirelessly to support his left back. What he lacks is composure in the final third?EUR?

But that was still to come. First you had to feel your heart in your mouth.

Thilo Kehrer. He's got a chaos about him that no cautious manager can really keep on a leash. If it wasn't a magnificent but risky challenge on the edge of his box with his shins whilst on a yellow card, he's trying to pop the ball in his own net.

A harmless cross had evaded everyone and fallen to him, facing goal, eight yards out. Was he cushioning it to Areola? Was he taking a touch and miscontrolled? Who knows, but the right back suddenly popped the ball into the bottom corner with nine minutes to play. Had Areola not been incredibly alert, it would have gone in, but the Frenchman was alive and threw a leg out to toe the ball off the line and spare some blushes.

There was barely a moment to reflect on that madness, as down the other end Aguerd should have ended things. After a corner was cleared, the ball was returned to the box and quite superbly taken down by Antonio. He shared a one-two with Soucek, and the ball was flicked away from him when retrieving the second pass. It sliced across the box, falling to Aguerd all alone, six yards from goal, a goal gaping open for him.

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He looked composed, his finish wasn't, the centre back passing it softly wide when he not only should have scored, but could have taken a touch or two before his effort.

Tension. It will make you sick.

Ings came on for Antonio and the clock was starting to be really played for now. Both Kehrer and Soucek had earned booking in the 10 minutes prior for delaying on throw-ins, but now the players were breaking away from defence to run into the corner.

There was a brief chance when Ings did well in the area and cut the ball back from the byline and and into the middle, where it was bundled into the goalkeeper's hands as the defence scrambled to protect him.

Then came the final scare.

A high, straight ball into the middle of the box was there to be claimed by Areola. He flew forward for it, coming through bodies to claim. But the ball went loose, bouncing down from his hands, off the arm of Zouma, down to the ground. Somehow, the Frenchman claimed it again in the mess, and was then fouled.

The AZ players begged and pleaded for a penalty, fans in the stands signalled for VAR. If it had been given, it would have been a travesty, the ball dropping from the goalkeeper and onto Zouma's arm about 20cm away.

And that's where my notes ended. The rest didn't need noting, it's a moment that will be seared into the collective West Ham history whatever the result in Prague.

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They had been playing for the corner flag for the 5-10 minutes before, but there was the cherry on top yet to be applied.

AZ, as they had done throughout, played quick passes into midfield, never resorting to bombing it forward from deep. This time, Fornals was quick to a slightly loose pass and intercepted.

He was just inside off the left flank. He could have kicked it into the left corner, but moments like this aren't made with cautious feet.

What did he do? 50 yards from goal, he nutmegged the man in front of him, and instead of flying to the corner, Fornals ran through on goal.

He was chased, but never has Pablo got away from a man as fast as he did in that moment. He made a few yards short of the box, and having run diagonally across left to right, he drove his shot back across into the bottom left corner.

It took an eternity to slide out of Ryan's reach, and whilst Danny Ings was celebrating before the shot was taken, the rest of us waited with baited breath. Watch the footage from inside the ground, there's a lull between shot and the ripple of the net, all before the eruption of glee, joy, relief and delight that saw the grown men cry.

Off he ran to the fans, standing on the hoardings and roaring to the celebrating Irons as the away fans went wild. The players went wild, too, and so did all those pubs, bars, living rooms and sofas.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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Manager's Rating

David Moyes 10/10: Everything went to plan, the subs worked, the boys ran their bits off. We're on our way to Prague and David Moyes is in charge.

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Player Ratings

Alphonse Areola
The kind of 7/10 you want, usually. The heroics of the save from Kehrer's pass are slightly cancelled out by the mess when claiming that high ball with minutes to go. Otherwise, he was pretty much untested, as you'd want.

Thilo Kehrer
Nearly, Thilo. The German has been a different player recently, defending with composure and looking finally like he has adapted to the English game. Considering the AZ threat was all about the left flank, Kehrer was excellent in nullifying Karlsson, producing two of the best challenges of the match when space did open up. It's a 9 without that back pass error, and I'm sorry, ok?

Aaron Cresswell
Whilst we focused on the left, there was little to remember on the right. For Cresswell, this must have been a huge occasion. It was massive for all involved, but none of them will have had that sense of blame about last year. Redemption might not be complete, but it's a long way to forgetting it and making sure his career isn't remembered for a red card.

Kurt Zouma
The kind of understated quality that has been key to Zouma's West Ham career. Just a very good defender who is mobile, strong and dominant aerially. They didn't really look like ever conceding, and against a side who were using the ball to try and find any hint of a crack in the armour. Not one to be found.

Nayef Aguerd
Much the same. The one moment the pair were really, really tested, the Moroccan showed his class. It was just enough, and just enough is all you need when you're defending a quite desperate situation in your own penalty area. It's hard to know if Pavlidis is any good or not, because Aguerd and Zouma contained him. Should have scored, but also gets some credit for a big run forward and some decent passes.

Declan Rice
Sitting in front and really playing as the holding player for most of the game, he still made his bursts forward and played excellently in tandem as a defensive pair with Soucek and a passing pair with Paquet??. It was the kind of ?EUR~quiet' game for Dec that meant he was doing all his defensive work without grabbing attention.

Tomas Soucek
Barely a sloppy pass to remember, instead this was the dominant defender that Soucek is. Just tireless, tireless running and work from a much-maligned figure. There's hardly a better pair of midfielders to have in front of a defence when backs are against the wall than Soucek and Rice. Soucek blocks, clears, tackles and did excellently to always be out and ready to support Bowen and Kehrer.

Lucas Paqueta
The pick of the bunch. Supported Antonio fantastically, outclassed his opponents constantly and had the physical strength to bully them when the silky skills didn't. He now looks completely at home in this side, making brilliant runs and breaks on the counter, finding better passes for the direct runners and threatening goal more. He's the key.

Said Benrahma
Not the wonderful performance of last week, but if anyone deserved a quieter night after that, it's him. What he should get an immense amount of credit for is his defending. He's not known as a man who will always stick to his task, but the motivation of a final can do a lot for a footballer and Sa??d had the focus.

Jarrod Bowen
A nearly night on a few occasions, it was his defending that mattered most. He was diligent and disciplined, with only minor errors. Nearly scored, nearly created, and I think he'll have frustrated the life out of Kerkez, who will be looking around corners for Bowen for days. He just always seemed to be there, whether it was defending 10 yards from his own byline or making darting runs into the box.

Michail Antonio
Ran the defenders ragged, bullied them, relieved pressure with great carries from deep, held the ball up, good movement for Paquet?? on the counters. It was a game where he was being asked to do a lot just to get attacks started, let alone trying to be the man on the end of them, and his performance was key to everything. The defence get no break without him, the side have no threat without his work to be a whole front line from wing to wing.


Pablo Fornals
(Replaced (Benrahma 75) I love you, Pablo.

Danny Ings
(Replaced Antonio 85) Mostly for the pre-goal celebration.

Flynn Downes
(Replaced Paqueta 90) Didn't even know this had happened, to be honest.

Lukasz Fabianski
Did not play.

Joseph Anang
Did not play.

Ben Johnson
Did not play.

Emerson Palmieri
Did not play.

Angelo Ogbonna
Did not play. Other unused subs: Vladimir Coufal, Maxwel Cornet, Divin Mubama

Manuel Lanzini
Did not play. Other unused subs: Vladimir Coufal, 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: Pablo Fornals 90                  .

Booked: Tomas Soucek 0 Thilo Kehrer 0        .

Sent off: None.

AZ Alkmaar: Ryan, Sugawara, Beukema, Hatzidiakos, Kerkez ( Wit 85), Reijnders, Mijnans (D de Wit 70), Clasie, Van Brederode (Lahdo 78), Pavlidis, Karlsson.

Subs not used: Verhulst, Deen, Mihailovic, Bazoer, Vanheusden, Meerdink, Goes.

Goals: .

Booked: .

Sent off: None.

Referee: Ivan Kruzliak.

Attendance: 19,009.

Man of the Match: Pablo Fornals.