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  • Writer's pictureBy Yann Tear at the London Stadium

Hammers eke out precious first leg lead after bouncing back from first-half Alkmaar strike


Europa Conference League semi-final: 1st leg


West Ham United (0) 2 Benrahma pen 67, Antonio 75

AZ Alkmaar (1) 1 Reijnders 41

West Ham fell behind, just as they did in last year’s Europa League semi-final, but this time managed to mount a stirring recovery to get their noses in front in this year's Conference League semi.


The Dutch visitors do not look as accomplished as the Frankfurt side which went home with a 2-1 victory in the first leg 12 months ago, but they stole in front just before the break against the run of play.


The setback seemed to drain some of the life out of David Moyes’ team for a while and they struggled to regain the upper hand. But they were handed a lifeline when former Arsenal and Brighton keeper Mat Ryan flew off his line to a high ball and caught Jarrod Bowen in the face with a punch.


It was a clear penalty, which Said Benrahma expertly put away and eight minutes later, Michail Antonio – the scorer in last year’s battle with Eintracht – nudged home a loose ball from a couple of yards after Declan Rice’s chip up from the byline had been headed on by Nayef Aguerd and blocked on the line.


Now much more fluid and less anxious, they poured forward in search of more and although they didn't get it, they clearly have the tools to score more in the second leg.


Alkmaar were neat and calm in possession, but packed little punch and that should offer plenty of encouragement for the Irons as they try to navigate a way to the final in Prague.


The Cheeseheads are the Moneyball team of Holland – a north of Amsterdam version of Brentford, perhaps, where the less fashionable manage to compete thanks to clever analytics and recruitment.


It seems to have been working for them. They have played 16 European ties already this season as they home in on what would be only a second Euro final in their history.


The previous one was way back in 1981, when Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town did for them in a two-legged final.


But this is still a team the Hammers have the measure of and they will be firm favourites to get the job done in Holland next Thursday in the second leg.


The early signs were promising for the Hammers, with Bowen heading just over and then almost flying into another cross, trying to apply a decisive touch.


Benrahma almost profited from a slip but a low curled effort from an angle was tipped out of harm’s way by Aussie stopper Ryan.


Lucas Paqueta once again showed the kind of pace and skills fans have been hoping for and not seen enough of until now.

But out of nowhere, the tidy but mostly powderpuff visitors suddenly found themselves ahead.


There were howls of protests from the hosts when Lucas Paqueta was outmuscled in an aerial dual, but Turkish referee Halil Umit Meier decided the challenge was not illegal.


The ball was worked wide to Sven Mijnans and a switch inside found Tijjani Reijnders, who let fly from 25 yards as the Irons failed to close him down.


Alphonse Areola was maybe at fault for allowing the ball to beat him at his right-hand post, but it was the slow reaction of the defence as a whole, which was punished.


You might have expected a strong reaction from the Hammers, but they took an age to find their feet again, as AZ grew in confidence and popped the ball around, largely untroubled.


Hammers fans were convinced their side was getting a raw deal with decisions, but Moyes’ men lacked clarity and precision. They appeared too rushed and too anxious and the decision-making was awry.


They badly needed a lifeline and got it when Ryan misjudged a lunge at a high ball, catching a leaping Bowen in the face and this time the decision went their way.


Soon after, they were ahead and the complexion of the tie had swung very much in favour of the east Londoners.


Hammers: (4-2-3-1) Areola – Kehrer, Zouma, Aguerd, Cresswell – Soucek, Rice – Bowen, Lucas Paqueta, Benrahma (Fornals 90) – Antonio (Ings 79)


Alkmaar: (4-2-3-1) Ryan – Sugawara, Beukema, Hatzidiakos, de Wit – Clasie, Reijnders – Odegaard (Lahdo 68), Mijnans, van Bredorode – Pavlidis (Mihailovic 79)

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