To many West Ham fans, this Europa League quarter-final tie with Lyon looked set to be the French connection between a surreal slaying of Sevilla in the last 16 and a semi-final against Barcelona or Frankfurt. It may yet prove to be just that, but based on the evidence of this turbulent first-leg draw, it will be no French dispatch.
The east London air carried a gentle chill and was laced with a distinct dose of expectation as West Ham fans filled their stadium on this early spring evening, with the pre-match rendition of “Bubbles” emitting undertones of belief rather than the almost audible hope that characterized the anthem ahead of the second-leg home win against Sevilla.
While the noise produced by the home supporters seemed to verge on crossing a dangerous decibel count at times, the small contingent of traveling Lyon fans bounced and sang throughout, hoping their own gathering would upstage any party planned by the Premier League side.
On the pitch, Lyon’s players were doing their part. Peter Bosz’s men maintained a structured shape off the ball and were sharp with their interceptions, frequently forcing their West Ham counterparts to surrender possession then ensuring the home team struggled to regain it.
During a frustrating opening 10 minutes for David Moyes’s side, Lyon threatened to take the lead through Moussa Dembele, who failed to convert with an improvised, flicked finish from close range after Ryan Fredericks’s lazy attempt to cut off a through ball had resulted in a cross reaching the striker.
The Ligue 1 club, ninth in their domestic table, continued to attack down West Ham’s right flank, where Fredericks was failing to match his impressive performance from Sunday’s victory over Everton. The Hammers in fact chiselled, however, creating half-chances with long balls over the top.
One found Said Benrahma, who refused to be dispossessed as he raced towards goal but saw his subsequent effort saved by Anthony Lopes. The next landed on the head of Michail Antonio, the striker then nodding the ball into the stride of Pablo Fornals. The midfielder slipped a pass back to Antonio, but the resultant angle was unkind and the Jamaica international’s shot only brought a corner. Nothing came of the set-piece, but a later corner saw Jarrod Bowen pick out an unmarked, onrushing Declan Rice, who almost passed the ball into the net with a precise but under-powered effort.
With Fornals frequently feeding Benrahma out on the left, West Ham were starting to hit their stride. Meanwhile, Lyon were starting to hit the turf – Malo Gusto, Jerome Boateng and Tanguy Ndombele making the most of the respective challenges from Craig Dawson, Fornals and Tomas Soucek.
The most genuine physical encounter of the game soon followed, as Lyon left-back Emerson took the exception to an enthusiastic, efficient tackle by Fredericks. As the former Chelsea defender barked at the West Ham right-back, Fredericks barged past Emerson, who then went forehead-to-forehead with the Englishman. Referee Felix Zwayer did well to cool tempers as half time approached
Before it could arrive, however, Aaron Cresswell would see red.
There was no act of fury, but the West Ham left-back received an immediate red card after tangling feet with Dembele during a Lyon counter, with the striker through on goal and Cresswell playing catch-up.
As Zwayer headed towards the tunnel for half time with Moyes yelling in his ear, he booked the irate West Ham coach, who was presumably suggesting that the Lyon counter-attack should never have taken place; seconds before it had been launched, Bowen was bundled to the grass from behind but without a foul given.
And so West Ham were forced to defend and Moyes was forced to adapt, replacing Benrahma with Ben Johnson. The hosts grouped together in their own box in two narrow, almost inseparable lines. Antonio was isolated but still managed to bring his teammates up the pitch, and – against the odds – the opening goal went West Ham’s way.
Fornals was only able to nudge the ball into the Lyon box, but it was there that Boateng miscontrolled it, allowing Bowen to pounce. The winger’s close-range shot deflected off the former Germany center-back, looping over Lopes and over the goal line.
West Ham remained disciplined, still sacrificing width but now allowing themselves a little more vertical movement. They were still working mainly with counters, and it was through one such move that goalscorer Bowen nearly turned provider. The forward deftly dispossessed the visitors before surging up the left wing, his eventual cross drawing Lopes into no-man’s land, where Antonio awaited. The striker, however, hurdled the goalkeeper, not wishing to hurt him.
Perhaps Antonio could have been more ruthless; had he been, he might have doubled his side’s lead or levelled the numbers on the pitch. Lyon soon leveled the scoreline.
Bosz had replaced Boateng and Romain Faivre with Karl Toko Ekambi and Tete, and it was the latter whose intentional work on the right resulted in a simple, close-range rebound for Ndombele.
Disappointed sighs from the home faithful quickly segued into defiant roars, encouraging West Ham’s players to hold strong or even snatch an unlikely victory.
There were 25 minutes to go, some of them treacherous, but still Moyes’ men threatened to do the implausible. With 10 minutes left in normal time, Bowen and Soucek combined superbly near the corner flag in Lyon’s half to conjure a decent cross, though Lopes was quick to react. With five minutes left, a promising West Ham counter was halted by a pitch invader.
The final moments were tense, the eight minutes of added time torturous for the home fans. Ultimately, neither side managed to muster a winner.
As such, West Ham and their fans will travel to France with a genuine belief that a semi-final – potentially a dream clash with Barcelona – is still on the cards.
The second leg can certainly still ensure that this tie becomes the French connection that West Ham fans hoped for. Don’t be surprised if it’s another thriller.