West Ham are through to the Europa Conference League final after a 1-0 win in the Netherlands was good enough to see them edge out AZ Alkmaar 3-1 on aggregate.
Pablo Fornals did not score until second-half stoppage time, so it was a nervy night for West Ham even with their players putting in an assured display.
Despite seeing less of the ball, the Hammers fashioned the better chances and almost grew their lead early on when Lucas Paqueta cut onto his left foot and sized up a shot form the edge of the box – but it hit the wrong side of the post.
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The fit-again Jesper Karlsson was AZ’s biggest threat on the left, but often dropped too deep as the home side struggled to break West Ham down.
AZ brought more urgency in the second half and could easily have won a penalty when Nayef Aguerd slid through Vangelis Pavlidis, but the referee deemed otherwise.
It was indicative of AZ’s trouble getting through the West Ham lines that the closest they came to scoring was when Thilo Kehrer took a loose touch in his own six-yard box, but quick reactions from Alphonse Areola saved Kehrer’s blushes.
Fornals then took advantage of Alkmaar’s desperation in the 94th minute when he won possession in his own half and was soon through on goal, firing low past Mat Ryan to put the icing on the cake.
The final will be West Ham’s first in competitive European competition since 1975-76, when they were Cup Winners’ Cup runners-up.
They will meet Fiorentina in Prague on Wednesday, June 7 after the Italian side won 3-1 away to Basel.
TALKING POINT – West Ham on the cusp of glory
West Ham have not won a major trophy in more than 40 years, yet are now just 90 minutes away from ending that drought. Should they win, it would elevate this season into being a huge success – bottom-half Premier League finish be damned – and perhaps even if West Ham lose the season is already there. The 2005-06 FA Cup final is West Ham’s only appearance in a major final in the last 40 years.
Of course there has been success in that span, notably a couple of wins in the Championship play-off final and an Intertoto Cup triumph should you choose to count that, but nothing like this. Only a minority of West Ham fans are old enough to remember an FA Cup triumph, and even fewer can recall winning the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Add to that mix that manager David Moyes is now on the cusp of winning his first major trophy as a manager. Next month’s final in Prague will be an era and legacy-defining match for club and manager.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH – Alphonse Areola (West Ham)
Areola did not have a lot to do, but coped well with what was thrown his way and made one notably a sharp save late on to protect the lead. After being at fault in the first leg, Areola bounced back with an assured showing which was exactly what West Ham required.
AZ Alkmaar: Ryan 7, Sugawara 6, Beukema 6, Hatzidiakos 7, Kerkez 7, Clasie 6, Reijnders 5, Mijnans 5, van Brederode 5, Karlsson 7, Pavlidis 5. Subs: Dani de Wit 5, Lahdo 5, Mees di Wit 5, Meerdink 6.
West Ham United: Areola 7, Kehrer 5, Zouma 6, Aguerd 6, Cresswell 7, Rice 6, Soucek 6, Bowen 7, Paqueta 6, Benrahma 5, Antonio 6. Subs: Fornals 7, Ings 6.
PAQUETA HITS POST 25′ – Strong work from Antonio sets up a chance for Paqueta, who cuts in onto his left foot, losing Clasie, and curls a shot onto the outside of the post.
AZ THREATEN 41′ – Kerkez makes a good run from left-back and it brings about AZ’s best chance yet. His low cross finds Pavlidis, who scuffs a shot from the edge of the six-yard box, but the ball is recycled and Sugawara shoots – but Aguerd makes a big block.
AZ WANT A PENALTY 58′ – Pavlidis carries the ball into the West Ham box, backs into Aguerd and appears to be brought down – but the referee deems it not a penalty. Aguerd didn’t touch the ball until the Greek forward was falling so is very fortunate to get away with it.
KEHRER ALMOST SCORES OWN GOAL 81′ – Another AZ attack looks to have come and gone after Dani de Wit crosses to nobody, but Kehrer takes a loose touch and the ball is destined for the net until Areola kicks clear.
FORNALS PUTS THE ICING ON THE CAKE 90+4′ – Fornals wins a 50-50 in his own half, ghosts past a limping Clasie and runs for goal rather than the corner before firing low past Ryan! West Ham are in the final now.
This is AZ’s first home defeat in 26 European matches.
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