Fired-up Fornals helps Hammers book Europa League qualification
West Ham United 3 Southampton 0
Pablo Fornals netted a precious double with Declan Rice helping himself to a late goal, to guide West Ham into the Europa League with victory over Southampton.
The Hammers can look out their collective passports at the end of this sprightly campaign, where David Moyes’ outfit will deservedly feature in Europe as a result of firm consistency, Finishing above London rivals Tottenham and Arsenal too, only adds to fans’ delight at their achievement.
With only a point needed for the qualification, this was still going to be something of a test against Saints who had held West Ham to a draw back in December in the corresponding fixture at St Mary’s. But the Hammers earned the acclaim on their post-match lap of honour.
After a degree of unease by the hosts in the opening half hour, when they lived rather dangerously and Saints looked positive, Fornals’ intervention to break the deadlock before adding another shortly afterwards changed matters entirely.
The second half was, in essence, largely an anti-climax, other than an 86th minute effort by Rice. West Ham’s game management - and the occasional smart save by their keeper Lukasz Fabianski - was enough to claim the points and end the season on such an unexpected bright note for returning supporters.
On the face of it, this was a fixture ideal for the hosts to negotiate, given that Southampton, in 14th place had, to all intents and purposes, nothing to play for. And with arena restrictions beginning to ease, a crowd of 10,000 were in attendance at the London Stadium, imbued with hope of the east Londoners appearing in Europe’s second tier competition next term.
Nevertheless, Moyes’s men were almost taken by surprise with ten minutes gone when Saints constructed an excellent move on the counter-attack. Picking up possession just inside his own half, Stuart Armstrong drove at the retreating West Ham rear guard before setting up Takumi Minamino. The Japanese midfielder, on loan from Liverpool, was unlucky in that his expert, deft clip over Hammers’ keeper Fabianski went inches wide.
It was the start of a period of, perhaps oddly, given the circumstances, a sustained period of pressure from Southampton. The home defence had to be alert to nimble passages of play around the edge of the penalty area. Fabianski did well to deny Kyle Walker-Peters on a couple of occasions, who had managed to ghost into scoring positions. So the warnings were there for West Ham.
The Hammers eventually replied when, in 27 minutes, Craig Dawson headed fractionally over from a Rice free kick. Yet there was a nervousness to West Ham’s play, particularly in front of goal.
Fortunately for Moyes, a three minute spell changed the complexion of both his and his team’s afternoon – thanks to Fornals.
Just before the half hour mark, as West Ham found their zip, Jarrod Bowen’s industry allowed him space to shoot from inside the box – but with Southampton keeper Alex McCarthy only able to palm the effort away, elusive Spaniard Fornals was on hand to smash the ball home.
As Saints, clearly shocked after their early vibrancy, tried to regroup, they failed to clear more danger which, in turn, led to the Londoners doubling their lead.
Picking up a loose ball, Vladimir Coufal directed a low cross from the left side of the penalty area, Fornals reacted instantly to drive the ball past a helpless McCarthy from eight yards. The delighted midfielder had truly settled nerves.
After the restart, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side attempted to take a little bit of control for themselves, and with danger men such as captain James Ward-Prowse, Danny Ings, Minamino and the creativity of Armstrong on display, West Ham could ill-afford any complacency despite their breathing space.
Michail Antonio got merited applause for his work upon being replaced by Said Benrahma in 68 minutes, with Moyes obviously mindful of some freshness just to see out the game and the rewards which awaited the Hammers. Mark Noble, Hammer royalty, came on for Bowen with a few minutes left to make the most of the day.
In a move to cement all this east London optimism, Rice then took charge with four minutes remaining to break beyond tired Saint Jan Bednarek on the left, before driving the ball under McCarthy. Officially the gloss on West Ham’s account.
Delighted Moyes can be very proud of what his team has earned for themselves. As he said in the match programme, “We are excited at the prospect of having you all with us in person next season, where I hope you will see your club involved in European football.” This was hardly ever in doubt.
Hammers: Fabianski, Cresswell, Coufal, Lingard, Dawson, Fornals, Bowen (Noble 83), Ogbonna, Soucek, Antonio (Benrahma 68), Rice (Diop 90)