LONDON — West Ham United’s biggest night in 46 years fell flat after just 49 seconds.
Perhaps the occasion of reaching a European semifinal got to them. After all, it was West Ham’s first semifinal appearance since the 1976 Cup Winners’ Cup, where they also faced Thursday’s opponents, Eintracht Frankfurt.
Several members of that famous Hammers side, which went on to win the competition, were present at London Stadium on Thursday, including the talismanic Sir Trevor Brooking, in a move partly designed to stir the soul of a club firmly on the rise under David Moyes .
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Yet it was Frankfurt who seized the moment on the way to a 2-1 win, with Rafael Borre crossing to the far post where Ansgar Knauff wriggled clear to plant a header past West Ham goalkeeper Alphonse Areola inside the first minute.
Suddenly, a stadium which has faced a long journey in reverse engineering a genuine football atmosphere, having originally been built as an athletics arena for the 2012 London Olympics, fell quiet. West Ham won’t miss the Upton Park pitch — mud-splattered as every player was by the sodden surface in the grainy highlights of that 1976 game shown on the big screens at half-time — but their iconic old ground was a cauldron almost incapable of allowing ferocity to dissipate.
After almost 15 minutes of stabilizing themselves in front of a capacity crowd fearing the worst, West Ham did improve. Jarrod Bowen hits the post when sent clean through before Michail Antonio equalized with his first goal since March 2, turning the ball in at the far post after Kurt Zouma had headed a free-kick back across goal.
Daichi Kamada put Frankfurt back up nine minutes after the restart, managing to hook enough of his leg behind the ball as Areola palmed Djibril Sow’s shot into his path. Said Benrahma’s 66th-minute introduction injected some fresh impetus into West Ham’s play, almost immediately clipping the outside of the post with a superb curling long-range effort. But it was Bowen who went closest in stoppage-time with a stunning overhead kick from Declan Rice’s cross which shuddered the crossbar. The Hammers were unlucky that the ball evaded Frankfurt goalkeeper Kevin Trapp as the ball bounced down and away from goal.
It is tempting to conclude West Ham’s small squad — they failed to sign an outfield player in January despite multiple attempts — and a gruelling season (their 51st game of the current campaign) may both have been contributing factors to a failure to grasp their chance here. Moyes made six changes in West Ham’s previous outing at Chelsea in an effort to keep preserve energy levels for this purpose they still rallied far too late in the piece.
Yet West Ham never truly kicked on, never quite taking control of the game, always vulnerable. There was a lack of intensity in their defending while going forward they never hit the exhilarating heights that have got them into this position.
Encouragement should come from the chances West Ham created but also the knowledge they can play much better than this and went to Lyon in the previous round to secure qualification with a remarkable 3-0 win.
« I don’t know if it is the level — the level of the games go up and maybe we don’t quite have the quality at times required to be at this level. We have at times but tonight I didn’t think we showed that. I thought we had to play better and we weren’t able to do so, » said Moyes.
« It is not what we wanted — we didn’t play well enough to get a result tonight but it’s still there, it’s not gone. We’ll go to the second leg probably not fancied and do what we can to still make it .
« I think we missed an awful lot of opportunities to create chances. We should have made more, we had chances to cross the ball better and didn’t take them. »
Frankfurt’s fans will make it a tougher ask. The Bundesliga side — now unbeaten in 11 Europa League games this season — had an official allocation of just 3,000 for the game but there appeared to be thousands more in London, similar to the estimated 30,000 who made the trip to Spain and bought tickets in the home sections of the Camp Nou as Frankfurt knocked out Barcelona in the quarterfinals.
Steps were taken to avoid the same situation here but there were still issues, with two German radio commentators struck several times in the aftermath of Antonio’s equalizer, according to reports from Bild. There were also heated words exchanged between the Frankfurt dugout and Hammers supporters standing nearby as frustrations threatened to spill over in the second half.
Instead of this being a famous night in West Ham’s modern-day history, they have the ignominious honor of becoming just the third side to lose a Europa League semifinal first leg at home. The others — Basel in 2013 and Celta Vigo in 2017 — were both knocked out. West Ham can avoid that fate in the second leg next week in Germany, but they have to cope with the occasion better than they did here.