West Ham fall just short in Europa League quarter-finals as unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen roll on

West Ham 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen (1-3 agg.): Jeremie Frimpong’s late equaliser sealed the German side’s spot in the Europa League semi-finals - but they were given a scare after a brilliant Hammers display

Kieran Jackson
at the London Stadium
Thursday 18 April 2024 22:13 BST
Jeremie Frimpong’s late equaliser maintained Bayer Leverkusen’s unbeaten season
Jeremie Frimpong’s late equaliser maintained Bayer Leverkusen’s unbeaten season (Getty Images)

So close, but not this time for West Ham United. As the Hammers’ jovial pre-match anthem goes: then like my dreams they fade and die. Belted out in harmony at the start, so it came to pass at the end. West Ham won this occasion, frankly, with their best performance of the season on this cool April evening, but Bayer Leverkusen won the war.

Xabi Alonso’s team remain unbeaten in all competitions this season – it is now 44-0 – courtesy of Jeremie Frimpong’s late deflected equaliser on the night and they are through to the Europa League semi-finals. West Ham’s scintillating unbeaten European journey dating back nearly two years is over but there can be no shame here. Because, wow, did they give Europe’s in-form team and the newly-crowned Bundesliga champions a fright.

Michail Antonio’s 13th-minute header, from Jarrod Bowen’s tantalising cross, proved to be West Ham’s only goal in the tie. In truth, they should have at least scored another – how they will rue Bowen’s first-half volley straight at the goalkeeper. But despite a high-octane, free-spirited display in front of a boisterous London Stadium crowd, there would be no Sevilla-esque comeback here. Ultimately, chasing a two-goal deficit, they had too much ground to make up.

Because Leverkusen just always find a way. What a side. What a mentality. Alonso was incandescent with his team’s performance for most of the night but, by the end, in scenes similar to the late show against Qarabag in the last 16 as well as the first leg last week, he was jubilant, jumping in celebration at the goal that sealed a final four berth.

Leverkusen left it late, as they so often seem to do, but the preceding 89 minutes left West Ham fans plenty to be proud of. Plenty to take on to their final five Premier League games of the season, two points off a European place, and they’ll want to overhaul Newcastle and Manchester United above them. They’ll want a taste of this once again. Because there’s just something about Thursday nights at the London Stadium.

An athletics arena much maligned when it entered the football-sphere, the West Ham fanbase have taken the empty space between pitch and stand and filled it with a cacophony of noise during their fairytale journey in European football over the last three years. This night was no different. And how was it vibrant from day dot. Booming screams and cheers across the stadium, limiting the red-clad travelling contingent to a mere support act, David Moyes’ men started on the front foot and fast. Aggressive in their press, strong in their duels, Leverkusen resorted to lumping the ball up the pitch; if not, they lost it. West Ham had to take advantage and it took just 13 minutes for the deficit in the tie to be halved.

Leverkusen gave Bowen time and space on the ball outside the box and, little do they know given his absence last week, that this season you just don’t give Bowen any room outside the box. The England international whipped in a terrific inswinging cross and Antonio rose highest, ahead of Leverkusen’s cup goalkeeper Matej Kovar, to head home into an empty net.

Alonso’s team, the epitome of composure in this record-breaking campaign, were shell-shocked. They weren’t used to this. The Spanish manager, usually coolness personified, was animatedly irate at his defence for dilly-dallying on the ball. Moyes had joked that he’d hoped for a hangover from the Bundesliga champions after their title celebrations on Sunday and, to an extent, he’d got it.

Michail Antonio halved the deficit in the tie with a brave header
Michail Antonio halved the deficit in the tie with a brave header (Getty Images)

Mohammed Kudus, on another Thursday night stormer under the London lights, went close to levelling the tie not long after, with his deflected effort almost wrong-footing Kovar, before his cross found an unmarked Bowen at the back post. West Ham’s top scorer should have scored but his volley on his weaker right foot was nonetheless well-saved by Kovar. Such a sitter, it had 60-year-old Moyes rolling over backwards.

Twenty-eight minutes in, Alonso had seen enough. Centre-back Odilon Kossounou, who had endured a disastrous spell from kick-off, was replaced by Edmond Tapsoba. Not long after, a backroom staff member apiece was sent off after a spat on the sideline which triggered fisticuffs on the pitch, too.

West Ham wanted the game played off emotion and half an hour in, they had the German champions rattled.

Tempers flared on the pitch and in the technical area
Tempers flared on the pitch and in the technical area (Getty Images)
Xabi Alonso’s team left it late once again at the London Stadium
Xabi Alonso’s team left it late once again at the London Stadium (Getty Images)

Bowen almost found Antonio again, in a carbon-copy cross of the goal, but the striker couldn’t quite reach it and before the half was out, Edson Alvarez and Vladimir Coufal both had sighters in the box but could not convert. At half-time, the lead was just one following the best half of football West Ham had played all season – but would they regret not scoring more? The answer would, somewhat inevitably given their opponents, be yes.

A sense of calm was restored. Alonso made a further two changes at the interval, with top scorer Victor Boniface among the introductions, and the game was suddenly being played at Leverkusen’s tempo: slow, calm, composed. Star player Florian Wirtz missed their clearest opening yet, spooning a half-volley over the bar, while Bowen went close again with his right foot at the other end.

An hour in, which way would this tie swing? Slowly but surely, in Leverkusen’s favour. For the first time, the 11 in claret looked leggy, taking deep breaths and puffing their cheeks out as the game became stretched. Jaded bodies and jaded minds, West Ham’s exasperation with pernickety little fouls going against them was matched by the fury of the crowd. The referee, Jose Maria Sanchez of Spain, was not a popular man in yellow by the end, dishing out two yellow cards in a matter of seconds for dissent. It would be 11 bookings by the end. No prizes for guessing the songs being belted out at this stage.

But it was a sign of the times. Leverkusen had regained control, and possession, amid the tension of the closing stages. On the break, substitute Frimpong had a glorious chance one-on-one to seal it but skied over the bar.

Yet he made no mistake minutes later as the clock hit 90, cutting in from the right and seeing his weak left-foot shot deflect off Aaron Cresswell and desparingly beyond Lukasz Fabianski. And with it, the visions of another away day, the visions of AS Roma and the Stadio Olimpico in the semis, go to Leverkusen as they march on in search of a historic treble.

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