West Ham vs. Eintracht Frankfurt score: Hammers suffer agonizing first-leg defeat in Europa League semifinals

LONDON — All the ingredients were there for another famous night under the lights for West Ham. In isolation everyone was offering all that could be expected of them. Declan Rice was as penetrative and authoritative as ever in midfield. Michail Antonio, the selfless center forward who could still lay on a goal. Kurt Zouma had even made a remarkable recovery to take his place alongside Craig Dawson in defense.

But something was not quite right, and the London Stadium could sense it. The simplest, most logical explanation is this was all the result of Eintracht Frankfurt’s opener after 53 seconds, robbing the players and the supporters of the chance to build the irresistible momentum that propelled them past Sevilla and Lyon.

And yet it seemed there was something altogether more imperceptible missing from West Ham. They were just those one or two degrees off. You could sense it when Jarrod Bowen darted forward, his pass toward Said Benrahma deflecting off a trailing leg. The Aaron Cresswell cross that deflected off Ansgar Knauff but onto the roof of the Kevin Trapp’s net. And nothing more agonizing than Bowen’s spectacular volley that thudded against the crossbar, down onto the goal line, the goal not given as the Hammers lost the first leg, 2-1.

West Ham supporters often like to claim that they won the 1966 World Cup for England. You could not help but think that moment might have been karmic retribution for Geoff Hurst’s second goal against Germany. 

A millimeter here or there and this tie would have a very different complexion to it. As is David Moyes’ team will have to go to Germany next week and overturn a one-goal deficit. On Thursday night’s evidence that is certainly not beyond them but to do without their home comforts would surely be the best achievement of this exceptional run to a first European semifinal in 46 years.

It had been Eintracht Frankfurt who they had beaten on that occasion as their hosts were keen to remind them beforehand, Sir Trevor Brooking’s goal replayed prematch and at half time as the club looked to rouse their supporters. The pyro, the tifos, the endless montages all set the scene for a landmark moment in West Ham’s history. But the bubbles had not even faded from the London Stadium sky before they were burst by Ansgar Knauff. As Frankfurt built down the left the hosts sat back, giving Rafael Borre the time to look up to the back post. Pablo Fornals had not been tracking his runner, and goalkeeper Alphonse Areola was dumbstruck as the ball flew into his far post.

For a time you could have believed West Ham’s worst pre-match fears had come true, that the stadium had been filled with visiting supporters. That was not quite true but the 3,000 or so Frankfurt fans in the ground made more than enough noise to fill this vast bowl. The London Stadium, David Moyes’ 12th, 13th and 14th men in the run to the semifinals, could not comprehend what to do next.

It took time for West Ham to get the ground back behind them. Then something clicked at last. Antonio, too physical for any one of Frankfurt’s back three to deal with on their own, turned into space to find Tomas Soucek in support. Beyond him flew Bowen, opening his body to score in the fashion he has done so regularly this season. Somehow Kevin Trapp contrived to get his fingertips on it, enough to divert the ball onto the post.

It may not have brought them level but Bowen’s chance brought them back to life. Eight minutes later they were level in classic West Ham fashion. Their string of set piece goals is on occasion greeted with some sniffiness by critics, the suggestion being that there can be no elegance or technique in hoofing the ball to the big men. This would disprove that, Manuel Lanzini’s initial delivery floating high and dropping swiftly onto Kurt Zouma’s head. He cushioned the ball across to the back post where Antonio showed remarkable athleticism to strike the ball on the volley before Declan Rice could turn the ball in.

You could hardly blame Antonio for that bit of selfishness to bring up his third club goal of the year. Even as he has struggled in front of goal he has run the channels with diligence, creating the space for Bowen to exploit as he had earlier in the season. He may well end the season running on fumes but do not expect that to stop him from moving.

Even in their goal lay West Ham’s bind. They were clearly at their most threatening when the gigantic Dawson, Zouma and Soucek had chances to trundle forward for set pieces but in doing so they left the space in behind for Filip Kostic and the dangerous Kamada to attack.

Ben Johnson and Aaron Cresswell dealt manfully with the pressure but on at least one occasion found four Frankfurt forwards charging in their direction, teammates trailing a fair way behind. With a covering run from Johnson pushing ball carrier Knauff wide, Cresswell did just enough to deny the goalscorer a second, sliding in with a tackle that denied him the chance to get a clean effort away on Areola’s goal. All he could do was spoon a shot over the near post.

That chance was not representative of a match West Ham had begun to dominate. Nor was the goal that came 10 minutes into the second half, a brisk move through the Hammers defense seeing Areola got a glove to Djibril Sow’s low effort only for Kamada to pounce on the rebound. 

Once more West Ham were knocked back out of their rhythm for too long. The quicksilver Benrahma curled a shot against the post from 30 yards out but that was one of a few guilty moments when he might have created a better chance for a teammate. The only substitute Moyes made in the match, he seemed to feel compelled to do it all himself.

It might have got worse for West Ham, Kamada’s shot deflected off Dawson and against the post, but it would have been an exceedingly cruel reflection of this game in which the ball just seemed to bounce out of reach at the decisive moments. They will still have to do it the hard way in Frankfurt — though Bowen was so close to restoring parity in the dying seconds — but this particular mountain does not feel too high for them to summit. If the breaks are on their side as they were not quite tonight then Seville remains in reach.

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