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West Ham keep Conference League dream alive as Michail Antonio completes comeback against AZ

West Ham 2-1 AZ Alkmaar (Benrahma pen 67′, Antonio 76′ | Reijnders 41′)

LONDON STADIUM — West Ham crash landed in the Europa Conference League with a bump after shooting for the Champions League this time last year, but all of a sudden it has become their salvation after a desperate season.

The ear-piercing noise that greeted Michail Antonio’s scrappy winner in the first leg of this semi-final is evidence of the competition’s elevated importance. West Ham haven’t won a major trophy since 1980; this is their best chance to do so in decades.

There was regret but understanding when West Ham’s European dream crumbled at the semi-final stage of the Europa League in 2022. This time, in an inferior competition and after a desperate domestic campaign, the margin for error is much reduced. Success in the Conference League is expected, not hoped for and West Ham travel to Alkmaar next week with a lead, albeit a slender one, after Said Benrahma and then Antonio overturned a one-goal deficit.

It had looked in danger of failing the same pattern as that agonising loss to Eintracht Frankfurt, when Tijani Reijnders fired the visitors in front against the run of play just before the break. For the first time in a European campaign that has provided some much-needed respite from domestic travails, West Ham found themselves in a tight spot.

David Moyes’ side had won nine and drawn the other of their 10 matches in this competition prior to the semi-final getting underway. This run has lacked the magnetism that an away win over Lyon and home victory over Sevilla did last season but gracing the latter stages was always likely to sharpen the minds and awaken the senses. These occasions are the pay-off for trips to Bucharest and Silkeborg and Larnaca in the earlier rounds.

The noise beforehand was suitably loud, the atmosphere snapping, crackling and popping in feverish anticipation. The red-shirted travelling contingent didn’t completely fill out their allocation of seats, but bounced exuberantly as Freed From Desire blared out of the PA system.

Given their resources – West Ham have spent £180m on transfers this season, four times more than the other three semi-finalists combined – getting this far was practically expected, less so the visitors.

Besides the “Oh, that’s where they are now” duo of Mathew Ryan (once of Brighton and briefly Arsenal) and all-action midfielder Jordy Clasie (formerly of Southampton), AZ’s starting line-up was a smorgasbord of up-and-comers looking to join the club’s impressive list of high-achieving exports this summer or next.

These clubs may be competing at the same level of European football, but otherwise operate in different stratospheres. West Ham’s right-back, right-sided centre back and No 10 were signed from PSG, Chelsea and Lyon respectively; AZ’s were recruited from Nagoya Grampus, Go Ahead Eagles and Sparta Rotterdam.

Almost half of the visitors’ 21-man squad was comprised of academy graduates, with three in the starting line-up and a further six on the bench. It’s unsurprising that AZ are raiding their cupboards first before scribbling out a list and heading out to the supermarket for first-team reinforcements, given their teenagers just wiped the floor with Real Madrid and Barcelona en route to spanking Hajduk Split 5-0 in the Uefa Youth League final last month.

In contrast, Declan Rice was the only homegrown star in the home side’s XI, but if the Premier League’s riches has contributed towards “The West Ham way” losing its way, AZ are in no position to allow their academy to drift. Since 2019, AZ have sold five academy graduates for €10m or more: Guus Til to Spartak Moscow, Myron Boadu to Monaco, Calvin Stengs to Nice, Teun Koopmeiners to Atalanta and Owen Wijndal to Ajax and remained competitive.

They certainly made life difficult for their hosts and will do so again at the AFAS Stadium next Thursday after largely containing them on their own patch.

Benrahma found Ryan tougher to catch out than David de Gea last weekend, the Australian making a superb finger-tip stop to nudge the Algerian’s effort wide early on in a moment that could have made the evening infinitely more comfortable for West Ham.

The referee was already as popular as a Millwall fan in Green Street after allowing AZ to take the sting out of the game, but became the villain of east London when Reijnders opener the scoring. Paqueta’s appeals for a free-kick after a coming together were dismissed and from the resulting counter-attack, AZ’s playmaker lashed a shot through Alphonse Areola’s gloves, much to the disgust of the home fans and delight of the exploding Cheeseheads.

A sense of injustice failed to ignite a West Ham comeback initially. They began the second period sluggishly when a fast start was required, allowing AZ to settle into their defensive shape and force their opponents into a high-stakes game of frustration.

West Ham badly needed a lift and got it midway through the second half when Ryan rashly collided with Jarrod Bowen to concede a penalty. Benrahma whipped his spot-kick into the same corner as the first goal and a guttural outpouring of relief followed. Optimism, hope and of course, bubbles filling a stadium that had threatened to be taken over by pessimism and despair.

Suddenly claret and blue shirts streamed forward with purpose, a spring in their step until Antonio’s winner completed the comeback. There remains plenty of jeopardy in this tie, though. The job is not yet finished and West Ham’s season still swings perilously between glory and failure.

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