The only blemish on West Ham United’s perfect UEFA Europa Conference League record was last week’s 1-1 draw against KAA Gent. Well, they certainly finished the job off in Thursday night’s second-leg and will now face Dutch outfit AZ Alkmaar in the semi-final after a 4-1 victory meant that the Irons progress 5-2 on aggregate.
David Moyes named a strong team for the encounter and made three changes from the home draw against Premier League leaders Arsenal, as Alphonse Areola replaced Łukasz Fabiański in goal. The Pole dropped to the bench where he was joined by youngster Joseph Anang. Nayef Aguerd had recovered from the foot injury picked up in the first-leg to return to the starting line-up in place of Thilo Kehrer, while Emmerson Palmieri came in for Aaron Cresswell.
Although Flynn Downes appeared with the Scotsman in Wednesday’s pre-match news conference, he started the game amongst the substitutes. Manuel Lanzini missed out on a start in Europe for the first time this season but was in the matchday squad, along with Freddie Potts and Divin Mubama.
The Hammers came into this encounter off the back of a dramatic fightback with the Gunners just four days ago and were keen to build momentum. They set the pace for the evening with a fast start which encouraged the large home support. They had a number of chances in the early stages but failed to take advantage of them.
The Belgians had a great chance to go ahead early on when Captain Sven Kums took possession from teammate Matisse Samoise and crossed into a dangerous area. Thankfully for the majority inside the stadium though, neither Gift Orban or Hugo Cuypers could apply the telling touch which would have had Areola beaten.
The hosts survived that scare and looked to turn the tables. They were awarded a free-kick and it was sent into the box where Kurt Zouma tried to head in past visiting goalkeeper Davy Roef but only succeeded in sending the chance over the bar.
KAA Gent did eventually open the scoring with twenty six gone when a mistake from Lucas Paquetá allowed Cuypers to beat Areola.
The Hammers went on the attack in search of an equaliser. Palmieri combined to good effect with Saïd Benrahma and the Algerian went close to beating Roef but the stopper managed to turn his powerful shot aside.
West Ham knew that they would probably have to find a way back into the game before half-time. Well, on thirty seven minutes, they were back on level terms when another free-kick went their way after Kamil Piątkowski handled Vladimír Coufal’s cross. Jarrod Bowen sent the set-piece over and found Michail Antonio, who gave Roef no chance.
When referee Orel Grinfeld blew his whistle for half-time, Moyes’ side wanted to quell the threat posed by their visitors and end their run in this competition.
The home side had a great chance just after the restart when it seemed certain that Tomáš Souček would put his team in front but unbelievably, he hit the bar, following great play from Bowen. In all honesty, it would have probably been easier to score!!!
Both Bowen and Antonio went close again but the Irons still had to wait to take the lead. However, not for too long though. The elusive goal finally arrived on fifty six minutes. As Antonio’s effort was struck, VAR spotted that it had hit Joseph Okumu’s hand. After a review on the pitchside monitor, the penalty was given.
The responsibility of taking the kick fell to Paquetá and he certainly atoned for his first-half error, as he confidently stepped up and sent Roef the wrong way to the delight of the home crowd.
West Ham turned on the style from then on and seconds later the home support were given another reason to go ballistic!!! Captain Declan Rice ran from his own half up to the other end of the pitch and placed the ball into the back of the net.
The goals didn’t stop there either, as Antonio then added his second of the game and a fourth in total to put the result beyond doubt. That particular effort also meant that he had gone level with Bowen on six European goals for the club.
Bowen then thought he had gone ahead of Antonio when he beat Roef but unfortunately, the fifth goal had been ruled out for handball and the celebrations were cut short.
Moyes then decided to make a number of changes on seventy minutes, as Kehrer, Downes and Danny Ings replaced Zouma, Antonio and the skipper.
The East Londoners continued to dominate before more changes were made just nine minutes later. Pablo Fornals and Maxwel Cornet came on for both Bowen and Benrahma.
After five minutes of stoppage time had been added, more celebrations could be heard from those in Claret and Blue, as Grinfeld blew the final whistle and a semi-final place was confirmed.
It’s been quite a week for the Hammers who will now look for another three points on the road, as they travel to The Vitality Stadium to face newly-promoted AFC Bournemouth on Sunday afternoon.