Brave West Ham threaten huge scare but thin squad proves costly as Bayer Leverkusen end Europa League run

West Ham could not reach another European semi-final (Getty Images)
West Ham could not reach another European semi-final (Getty Images)

In the lead up to this match, many West Ham supporters had joked of how typical it would be were the Hammers to become the first side to beat Bayer Leverkusen all season and yet still come up short in their quest for a miraculous European comeback from 2-0 down.

Few, in all seriousness, thought it was on the cards. But with a minute of regulation to play at the London Stadium, that looked destined to be the Hammers’s lot, reward if not consolation, for a display of real courage and defiance.

At the death, Jeremie Frimpong’s deflected strike denied them even that, earning Leverkusen a 1-1 draw on the night and a 3-1 aggregate victory, ensuring they not only go on to face Roma in the Europa League semi-final, but do so with their 44-match unbeaten run, for now at least, still in tact.

Yet play this contest alongside last week’s encounter - when West Ham hung on gamely until Leverkusen’s two late goals but did not do much more than that - and it would take a quite extraordinary feat of persuasion to convince anyone that the two teams were the same.

Meek in chasing shadows in Germany, here West Ham hunted with conviction and menace. Buoyed by the return to fitness of Jarrod Bowen they led through Michail Antonio’s 13th-minute header and dominated for an hour, until a lack of options off the bench again proved David Moyes’s Achilles heel.

Michail Antonio headed West Ham into a first-half lead (Getty Images)
Michail Antonio headed West Ham into a first-half lead (Getty Images)

Leverkusen, so slick, so confident a week ago, and burnished with a Bundesliga title since, went into their shell, intimidated by a raucous atmosphere in which everyone - players, fans, stadium PA and even coaching staff - played their part.

Moyes had labelled Leverkusen’s bench a “disgrace” seven days ago, infuriated by its response to the tackle which earned Lucas Paqueta a yellow card and a costly suspension for this return. Here though, neither set of coaches earned any good behaviour points, Hammers assistant Billy McKinlay and Leverkusen counterpart Sebastian Parrilla both shown red cards as tempers frayed midway through the half.

On the pitch, Antonio took advantage of the distraction to start a fracas of his own, winding up new arrival Edmond Tapsoba, only just on after the hapless Odilon Kossounou had been dragged inside half-an-hour, and earning a booking apiece for himself and Leverkusen skipper Jonathan Tah.

Having spent so much of last week’s tie watching Leverkusen’s pretty patterns at arm’s length, this was the kind of confrontation West Ham craved, the London Stadium as loud as its been all season and Xabi Alonso’s brilliant, but inexperienced side visibly rattled.

James Ward-Prowse had admitted in the build-up to showing too much respect to Alonso’s men in the away leg but there was no chance of that here, the former Southampton man pushed higher into midfield to orchestrate a rabid press that offered the visitors no room to breathe.

Granit Xhaka knew his team were in a pickle and dished out a rollocking to goalkeeper Matej Kovar as he dallied in the moments after Antonio’s opening goal, while even the wonderful Florian Wirtz found his touch loose and his radar off.

Lukasz Fabiański, on his 39th birthday, could not have dreamt of such a quiet first-half, pressed into service only once when parrying Nathan Tella’s effort from range away.

If there was any regret at the end of perhaps the best 45 minutes of West Ham’s season, it was that they still trailed. Bowen could not have done much more meeting Mohammed Kudus’s cross on the volley, but saw his effort smartly kept out, while Edson Alvarez curled against team-mate Antonio when he had enough goal in his sightline to pick out the far corner.

Inevitably, though, the other side of the interval, and in particular beyond the hour, West Ham began to tire.

Without Paqueta and Emerson through suspension, an already thin squad was at its wafer worst. Alonso had had the luxury of making six changes coming into this game and at half-time sent on Frimpong and Victor Boniface, the striker whose late header in the first-leg was at that point still deciding the tie. Midway through the second-half the sparky Amine Adli was thrown into the fray, too. All the while, Danny Ings, Ben Johnson and Maxwel Cornet jogged up and down the touchline and Moyes looked the other way.

The atmosphere, though, remained tirelessly ferocious, referee Jose Maria Sanchez playing his part with a series of abysmal - if not majorly consequential - calls that saw Bowen, Kurt Zouma and Vladimir Coufal all booked for dissent.

But when Frimpong eventually broke through, there was none of that, the home crowd united in applause and appreciation of a monumental effort fallen just short.