AZ let West Ham United outsmart them in first semifinal after halftime
AZ will have to rise above themselves next week, as they did earlier against Lazio and Anderlecht, to reach the Conference League final. West Ham United made the difference Thursday night in the first semi-final after the break: 2-1.
Eighteen years ago, AZ last stood in a semifinal of a European tournament. Then, in 2005, Sporting Portugal won the UEFA Cup after a dramatic denouement in Alkmaar.
The coach back then was named Co Adriaanse. Anno 2023, it is Pascal Jansen. For him, the London encounter had a special connotation. He has a British mother, was born in the capital and grew up in nearby Aylesbury.
Not surprisingly, then, Jansen dreams of a future as a manager in the Premier League. He was already advertising himself a bit with AZ in London’s Olympic Stadium, because before halftime his team’s defensive organization stood like a house.
West Ham did create danger on a number of occasions, but these were preceded by misses on the Alkmaar side. Sam Beukema, a self-proclaimed West Ham fan, headed a London chance in the early stages after stupid ball loss. Jarrod Bowen was unable to take advantage.
Moments later, AZ goalkeeper Mathew Ryan cleverly prevented a goal by Saïd Benrahma after Yukinari Sugawara was caught off guard. Shortly thereafter, after yet another carelessness on AZ’s side, Lucas Paqueta’s final pass to striker Michail Antonio was very weak.
Number fifteen of England
The current number fifteen of the Premier League, still 1-0 too strong for Manchester United on Sunday, did not show much more than that. It lurked on mistakes by AZ, which, barring the aforementioned moments, easily held its ground and made a mature impression.
Offensively, however, AZ, without Jesper Karlsson (injury) and Milos Kerkez (suspension), could do little. It had the ball frequently, but played at too low a tempo to scare the Londoners.
Just before halftime, Tijjani Reijnders, who has grown tremendously this season, tried his luck from distance and he was successful. Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola did not get off scot-free, by the way.
West Ham still protested after an earlier alleged foul by Beukema on Paqueta, but fell flat with the Turkish referee. The discipline shown before halftime thus gave AZ the maximum result.
More could have been expected from the more wealthy West Ham, including English international Declan Rice, in the second half. Not for nothing did David Moyes’ formation win the previous six home matches in the Conference League.
It did press, but needed a penalty after more than an hour of play to equalize. Ryan came out from a cross, missed the ball and instead hit Bowen’s head. The rightly given penalty kick was cashed in by Benrahma.
AZ appeared to be somewhat out of sorts and showed themselves physically vulnerable at a corner fifteen minutes before time. Sugawara cleared a Nayef Aguerd effort from the goal line, but the alert Antonio then made it 2-1.
In the closing stages, it was important for AZ to avoid further damage in order to keep the prospect of reaching their first European final since 1981. That happened, leaving the battle in Alkmaar open next week, with West Ham slightly in favor.