Hammers feeling the Cup Winners Cup vibes of old as Gent are blitzed in second half onsalught
West Ham (1) 4 Antonio 37, 63 Paqueta pen 55, Rice 58
KAA Gent (1) 1 Cuypers 26
Domestic worries? Who cares when there is a pot of achievable silverware to chase.
West Ham overcame an uncertain start to blow Belgians Gent away, having fallen behind after a blunder. Their season could yet have a very happy ending.
A Prague Spring finale beckons.
The reviving of a third tier competition in Europe seems to have been tailor-made for the Hammers, who will always have a soft spot for it.
The Europa Conference League – won by Jose Mourinho’s Roma in its inaugural year – has the feel of the old Cup Winners Cup that the Irons famously won in 1965 and finished runners-up in in 1976.
The memory of Bobby Moore lifting that old trophy at Wembley – sandwiched between the FA Cup Final win of 64 and the World Cup final in 66 – will always justly resonate with the Hammers faithful.
Last year’s run to the Europa League semi-finals was a great adventure, but somehow the ‘new Cup Winners Cup’ seems the perfect fit, and even in this season of domestic underachievement, the prospect of a Prague final in early June is tantalising.
Standing in the way of a semi-final date with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar was the club they first cup their teeth on in Europe back in the summer of 64 – when KAA Gent were La Gantoise.
They came through what was a tight preliminary round, paving the way for the run which would see them defeat 1860 Munich at Wembley in that final.
The London Stadium was by no means full and felt underwhelmed at the outset – even if a mosaic in West Ham colours was laid on before kick-off to try and beef up the sense of occasion. But the chilly East End air did not give this contest the feel of being at the business end of the competition.
In truth, these are the nights when the old Upton Park is really missed – when a smaller crowd in the tight confines of that old bear-pit could guarantee a hyper-inflated tension.
But the home fans stirred in response to their team running away with it at the start of the second half, when three goals in eight minutes sent the visitors packing.
West Ham’s night did not begin that well and they got a warning early on when skipper Sven Kums’ cross was somehow missed by two Gent players in the six-yard box.
Hugo Cuypers, who scored in last week’s 1-1 first-leg draw in Belgium, opened the scoring after 26 minutes after a howler from Lucas Paqueta had gifted possession to - appropriately enough - Gift Orban.
The striker played it square to Malisse Samoise, who in turn knocked the ball back from the right for Cuypers to put away – Nayef Aguerd on the line unable to stop the shot.
It was all square 11 minutes later when Michael Antonio, who was a handful throughout for the visitors, headed in Jarrod Bowen’s free-kick to the near post.
West Ham had been well below par but a blistering start to the second half settled the tie. The Irons instantly looked a different prospect, with Tomas Soucek crashing a shot against the bar and Bowen almost scoring with a low drive.
And as the pressure cranked up, defender Joseph Okumu panicked after a slip and handled a cross – which VAR rather than the ref called in. Lucas Paqueta, atoning for that first-half error, put away the spot-kick after a stuttering run-up.
Moments later, a wonder goal from Declan Rice completed the turnaround. He won the ball off Kamil Piatkowski deep in the Hammers' half and raced on before skipping around two defenders and sending a low angled shot into the bottom corner.
And with the now-buzzing London Stadium still celebrating their team’s ‘goal of the season’ as the PA had it, the tireless Antonio cut inside to power another shot beyond keeper Davy Roef.
David Moyes, confident the job was done, took off Antonio and Rice, with Sunday’s trip to Bournemouth in mind. It was a night that turned out perfectly for the Irons – just like some of those old nights in Europe used to.
Hammers: (4-2-3-1) Areola – Coufal, Zouma (Keher 7), Aguerd, Emerson – Soucek, Rice (Downes 70) – Bowen (Cornet 79), Paqueta, Benrahma (Fornals 79), Antonio (Ings 70)
Gantoise: (3-4-1-2) Roef – Piatkowski, Okumu, Fortuna – Samoise, Kums, De Sart (Odjidja-Ofoe 71), Castro-Montes – Hong (Tissoudali 70) – Orban (Depoitre 70), Cuypers