Hammers Hold Larnaca Advantage
The victories keep on coming in Europe for West Ham United, as they beat Cypriot outfit AEK Larnaca 2-0 in the first-leg of of their Round of 16 tie on Thursday.
Thilo Kehrer, Kurt Zouma, Aaron Cresswell, Manuel Lanzini, Flynn Downes, Pablo Fornals and Michail Antonio were all given starts by David Moyes with Tomáš Souček, Lucas Paquetá, Jarrod Bowen, Ben Johnson, Emmerson Palmieri and Danny Ings all dropping to the bench. Also included in the matchday squad was Maxwel Cornet, who finally made his long awaited return from a calf injury which had kept him out of action since October.
After losing the game against Brighton and Hove Albion at the weekend, the Hammers were keen to make amends for that defeat and although they made a bright start here, they struggled to make the breakthrough.
It looked as if Antonio might have to go off injured early on, as he appeared to have a tight calf but after some lengthy treatment, he was thankfully able to continue.
The visitors knew they should have grabbed the advantage because the hosts then grew into the game and earned three corner kicks. Rafael Lopes met the delivery from Gustavo Ledes but fortunately for the strong away support, the near post header failed to hit the target.
West Ham went close to finally going in front on the half-hour mark but Lanzini’s attempt went inches wide. However, they didn’t have to wait too much longer to open the scoring. Cresswell found Saïd Benrahma, who sent a right-footed cross looking for Antonio and he did the rest, heading into the net past home goalkeeper Kenan Pirić.
Getting the goal really gave the Irons a further confidence boost and they could have increased their advantage just minutes later, as Fornals tried his luck but his effort went narrowly wide.
Moyes’ men were still keeping the pressure on and just before half-time, they stretched their lead and it was another for Antonio. A great ball from Captain Declan Rice sent him away and the frontman took his time before powering a shot past Pirić to notch up his sixth European goal to take him level with David Cross, Johnny Byrne and Jarrod Bowen, meaning the club now have four all-time top European goalscorers.
The East Londoners were pleased to have got a second goal before referee Espen Eskås blew for the break, as it meant that they had a foothold in the tie but, it was far from over.
It so nearly could have been just minutes after the action recommenced though!!! Antonio looked odds on to claim a hat-trick only for the ball to come back off the post after Benrahma had sent an inviting ball into his path.
With an hour gone, Moyes made a triple substitution, as Souček, Bowen and Gianluca Scamacca all replaced Rice, Benrahma and Antonio.
Shortly after, Eskås booked Downes for what seemed no more than a tussle with substitute Omri Altman, who replaced Rafail Mamas in the fifty eighth minute, meaning the former Swansea City midfielder is now suspended for the game in Stratford. However, it is not going to matter too much, as he later suffered a foot injury.
AEK Larnaca had another spell of pressure as the game wore on where they were awarded another succession of corners but again, Alphonse Areola’s goal wasn’t troubled. That was until he was tested by both Imad Faraj and Ivan Trichkovski who had been brought on earlier in the encounter. However, the Frenchman was equal to the efforts.
Lanzini was withdrawn by Moyes in the seventy seventh minute and Paquetá was introduced, then five minutes later, despite the Scotsman saying that he was not intending to use Cornet in his pre-match news conference on Wednesday, the former Burnley winger did make an appearance in place of Fornals.
The latest two substitutes to have entered the fray combined well to fashion an opportunity which could have made the tie safe with the second-leg still to play. Cornet played a great ball out to Paquetá, who only had Pirić to beat but too many touches from the Brazilian midfielder meant that the goalkeeper was able to narrow the angle and save with his feet.
Six minutes of stoppage time at the end of the ninety were successfully negotiated but the Hammers will try to finish the job off next Thursday when the two teams meet again in East London.
Before then though, the Irons have to turn their attention back to the Premier League and the visit of Aston Villa on Sunday afternoon.