Declan Rice delivers again for West Ham on what could prove his emotional farewell to east London
uring a light-hearted moment in the first-half here at the London Stadium, Leeds manager Sam Allardyce spotted a stray five-pound note on the touchline, picked it up, and jokingly offered it to the fourth official.
Given some of the decisions that have gone against his side in recent weeks, David Moyes may not quite have seen the funny side. Declan Rice’s many watching suitors could no doubt have thought of better use for the cash, too.
Rice will not come cheap this summer, West Ham intending to drive a hard bargain in the hope of drawing a British record transfer fee.
But the expectation remains that this was the 24-year-old’s final home game in claret and blue and, if that proves the case, then this – six years to the day after his debut – was a fine way to sign off.
West Ham’s captain scored their equaliser here with a fine first-half finish, levelling the scores after Rodrigo’s opener, before Jarrod Bowen’s goal put the Hammers on course to a 3-1 win that leaves Leeds staring down the barrel of relegation.
Rice celebrated his goal in joyous fashion, knee-sliding in front of the home fans with arms spread and a smile almost as wide, but the contrasting emotion of the occasion showed a little more evenly during a second-half break in play, when the midfielder appeared to pause and compose himself as the London Stadium sang, probably in knowing vain, of their hopes for a few more years yet.
After the high of Thursday night’s Europa Conference League semi-final success at AZ Alkmaar, Moyes’s side might have been forgiven a tired display, particularly given the added emotional turmoil of that game’s horrendous post-whistle scenes.
Instead, a strong team showing six changes fought back brilliantly from a goal down to reach the fabled, though not especially pertinent, 40-point mark a day after their survival was mathematically assured.
That victory should have been sealed long before Manuel Lanzini’s stoppage time clincher, the substitute marking his own final home appearance after a sensational run from Lucas Paqueta, was a damning indictment of a Leeds team supposedly fighting for their lives, who must now beat Tottenham at home on the final day next weekend to have any chance of staying up.
Pablo Fornals makes case for Prague
When Moyes rotated almost his entire side for last weekend’s trip to Brentford, there was a sense that nothing any of his deputies did would do much to alter the Scot’s thinking ahead of Thursday’s crucial game in Alkmaar. Unsurprisingly off the back of a 2-0 defeat, Moyes reversed all nine in the Netherlands.
The Hammers boss has taken a long time to settle on a first-choice XI this season but if any player could yet disrupt it with a view to making the starting line-up in Prague, it may well be Fornals.
The Spaniard, fresh from his brilliant clinching goal in midweek, was afforded a reception second on the decibel-meter only to Rice when his name was read out before kick-off and it was his delightful lofted pass that freed Bowen to cross for the skipper’s leveller. Soon after, there was another extended ovation as he strolled across to take a corner, out of breath having just won possession in his own box and gone the length of the pitch to make a chance for Emerson.
In a team full of understudies at Brentford, Fornals did not stand out as being worthy of regular inclusion, but surrounded by better, more in-tune players here he made a more compelling case.
Defensive errors throw West Ham off course
It would be easy enough to look at the facts – a goal from a long throw-in, scored by an Allardyce-coached team – and conjure a knowing smirk at the speed with which a team not all that long ago managed by Marcelo Bielsa have embraced the more agricultural style associated (rightly or wrongly) with their interim boss.
In reality though, Weston McKennie’s celebration in turning to the bench after Rodrigo had arrived unmarked to volley home his hurled delivery suggested a more thoughtful plan: a weakness identified, a weakness exploited.
This was the second Premier League game in a row in which the Hammers have been undone by a long throw-in, their defending even worse here than for Yoane Wissa’s flicked second at Brentford last weekend.
Those concessions are part of a broader trend which, strangely, has seen West Ham’s defensive solidity at set-pieces evaporate in recent weeks, just at the moment that their potency in the other box, once a trademark, has belatedly returned.
It is unlikely to have gone unnoticed in Florence…