West Ham driven by Europa League heartbreak in crunch AZ Alkmaar decider
Tomas Soucek says West Ham’s players are even more motivated than 12 months ago as they stand once again on the brink of European history.
The Hammers are 90 minutes away from a first major European final in 47 years and, beyond that, within touching distance of the club’s first piece of silverware since the 1980 FA Cup.
David Moyes’s side travel to AZ Alkmaar on Thursday evening hoping to defend their 2-1 first-leg lead to book a spot in next month’s Europa Conference League final in Prague.
A year ago, Moyes’s men went to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League semi-final decider trailing by the same scoreline, but hopes of a comeback evaporated with Aaron Cresswell’s early red card and Soucek says the pain of coming so close is yet to fully disperse.
“I haven't watched the game back because I was so disappointed for many days, months, even still now,” Soucek said. “I wanted to be there in the final, but I remember nearly every set-piece or [thing] we could do better.
“[We learned] to go from the first minute of the first leg, we did that better than last year. It’s a massive improvement but now we’re here and we’re all motivated to get to the final because we know that West Ham haven’t for a few years and we want to give our fans this chance to get to the final. That’s our goal for all of us, so I think we’re even more motivated than last year.”
Along with defender Vladimir Coufal, who is back in contention after a hamstring injury, Soucek has added incentive to reach a final that will take place in his home country’s capital on June 7.
“Since I knew the final is in Prague at the beginning of the season I told the guys: ‘Come on, we need to go there because it’s my home’,” he added. “So, it’s a special motivation for me to get there because I know the stadium very well. I went there at 10 years old so it’s another special motivation.”
The Czech has failed to recapture the form of previous seasons for much of the current campaign but, like many of Moyes’s established core, has improved markedly in recent months, something Soucek himself puts down to a growing midfield understanding with captain Declan Rice and club-record signing Lucas Paqueta.
“Before I played with [just] Declan for quite long but this season Lucas came and it’s true that the first few games we couldn’t get the right connection between all of us,” the 28-year-old said. “Sometimes it takes time and now we all know what one another can do on the pitch, how to attack or defend together and be a good part of the team.
“I hope we show that [tonight] as well but in the last few games we already showed that we’re heading in the right direction.”
As well as Coufal, West Ham have Michail Antonio back in contention following a calf problem picked up in last week’s first leg.