In the end the only consolation for West Ham was that they are still in the tie. The damage could have been more severe. Eintracht Frankfurt were superior for long spells and, as David Moyes picks through a messy performance from his team, he will feel relieved that West Ham will have a chance of reaching the Europa League final when they travel to Germany next week.
There is much for a naive West Ham to improve before the second leg. Eintracht picked them off at will at times and should have departed the London Stadium with more than a 2-1 lead. It would have been undeserved if West Ham, whose goal came from Michail Antonio, had equalized when Jarrod Bowen’s overhead kick struck the bar in stoppage time.
It meant so much to both sides to have come this far. There was no sense of ennui in the stands; no sense of anyone taking this for granted. After all, younger West Ham fans had never seen anything like this before. This was their side’s first European semi-final since 1976 – through a strange quirk of fate, that was also against Frankfurt – and it was not a surprise to find the ground packed long before kick-off, the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention when the home fans launched into a rousing rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles to the teams emerged.
Yet Frankfurt were never going to be overawed after stunning Barcelona in the previous round. The visitors were backed by a large traveling contingent and, more importantly, were not short of confidence on the pitch. There was a crispness to Oliver Glasner’s side, trouble flaring when Daichi Kamada had possession, and the early signs were ominous for West Ham, who could not have imagined that they would be behind with less than a minute on the clock.
Admittedly it was a beautifully worked goal from the Germans. The move began with Kamada drifting down the left and West Ham were slow to react when the ball reached Rafael Borré. The striker had too much time to turn and when Borré sent a lovely curling cross in behind Pablo Fornals at the far post it was almost as if he knew Angsar Knauff would be there, hurtling in from right wing-back to meet the delivery with a header that left Alphonse Areola rooted to the spot.
West Ham, who were boosted by Kurt Zouma returning from injury to partner Craig Dawson in central defence, looked shocked. For a while they could not do anything right. Too many passes went astray and there were times when Frankfurt, who were posing problems thanks to their enterprising 3-4-2-1 system, seemed likely to extend their lead.
Gradually, though, West Ham began to impose themselves. Declan Rice began to win his tackles in midfield. Antonio began to use his strength from him up front, which forced Frankfurt to think twice and move their defense back a few yards.
The equalizer should have arrived when Antonio combined with Tomas Soucek, who sent Bowen racing clear through the middle. His low finish looked good enough, only for Kevin Trapp guide the shot on to the left post.
Yet it was encouraging for West Ham and it was not a surprise when they drew level. They had a height advantage over Eintracht, who were missing the influential Kristijan Jakic and Evan Ndicka through suspension, and the visitors cracked when Manuel Lanzini lifted a free-kick to the far post in the 21st minute. There was no challenge on Zouma and Antonio bundled a volley past Trapp.
Finally the tension was lifted, Antonio threatening to score again after an error from Almamy Touré, though Frankfurt remained threatening on the break. At times West Ham’s players did not seem to know who to pick up. Borré kept dropping deep to pick up possession between the lines and it was hard not to feel for Aaron Cresswell as the left-back strained to keep up Knauff, who kept making the same angled run and almost restored Eintracht’s lead when he fired over inches after another slick counterattack.
It was uncomfortable for West Ham. Eintracht simply had more to them. Their movement was too quick, the interplay too sharp West Ham could not cope and they were behind again when Djibril Sow surged through midfield after 54 minutes, burst clear after a one-two with Jesper Lindstrøm and tried to place a low finish past Areola, who parried the ball into the path of Kamada and watched helplessly as the midfielder put the rebound away.
West Ham had it all to do by the end. While Saïd Benrahma went close with a bending effort after replacing Lanzini, an equalizer rarely felt likely. More precision was required in the final third. Too many promising positions went to waste and there were howls from the crowd when Benrahma fired over with Antonio unmarked in the middle.
It summed up West Ham’s night, although they did enjoy a huge escape when Kamada’s deflected shot hit the woodwork. At least they still have hope before the second leg.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism