Approaching the end of a rollercoaster season, it fits well that the story of West Ham’s campaign is yet to be determined ahead of its final chapter – even though the match in question is their first European final in more than two generations.
Their season has already been one of wild contrasts, simultaneously mounting a desperate battle against Premier League relegation while breezing their way through Europe for the second year in a row.
The purgatory runs from top to bottom. There has even been talk of David Moyes walking away from the club voluntarily depending on the outcome of Wednesday’s Europa Conference League final with Fiorentina in Prague, although the Hammers manager has since insisted he intends to continue.
Beneath such potential highs and lows does run an undercurrent of positivity and faith that this West Ham squad, which has delivered on the continent time and time again over the past nine months, can deliver one final push.
Before West Ham flew out to the Czech Republic, Moyes was even asked whether this squad would be recognised with a statue like the one unveiled only two years ago in memory of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters’ contribution to West Ham’s last taste of European glory, the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965.
Even ahead of the biggest night in the Hammers’ recent history, the 60-year-old emphasised the importance of the bigger picture to assess how far the club has come since his return in 2019.
He said: “I’m not sure that if you’d told anybody in the period we would finish sixth and seventh in the Premier League, we’d have got to a semi-final of a European competition, and then a year after, you would get to the final of a European competition. I think if you said that to people before we came in, you would’ve said no, that’s not true.
“I think there a lot of good things going on. I think we’ve given lots of the West Ham supporters and the club some really good times and long may it continue. We want to continue it, we want to grow it. We want to keep it going and keep these moments happening and to me, in a cup final, it is special. Certainly for West Ham, it’s been a while since we’ve been here.”
A perfect send-off for captain Rice?
If the potentially-departing Declan Rice’s final chapter of his West Ham legacy were to lift a European trophy for his boyhood club, it would be a fitting end for one of east London’s favourite sons.
Rice has risen through the ranks like few others in recent years to write himself into club folklore. It is easy to forget the affable, confident skipper who never shies away from fronting up for his team-mates only turned 24 in January.
He has led his side on the pitch as well as off it en route to Prague and few would begrudge him a move of the kind that has been talked about this summer, with Champions League incumbents Bayern Munich and Arsenal at the front of the queue.
Rice was present two years ago at the unveiling of the Olympic Park statue commemorating that legendary West Ham trio, and would be in line for one of his own if he and his team can add to the all-too-slim honours board at the London Stadium on Wednesday night.
The ‘West Ham way’ has been a source of ridicule in the club’s lesser moments but he embodies it in his manner – just as Mark Noble did before him – and also in his ability to mix fight with composure.
Even in a poor domestic season for the club, he has made more interceptions than anyone else in the Premier League, while only five of the eight players ahead of him in the tackling ranks are midfield rivals.
In the same breath he has controlled West Ham’s midfield with the ball, enjoying the 12th-most touches in the league, completing the 10th-most passes, and the 13th-most in the final third.
Moyes admits there is a “good chance” his skipper will make headway when the transfer window reopens, but he has one final job to do before that, and, given how he has relished leading this West Ham team so far, he looks sure to do exactly the same on the biggest stage of his club career to date.
‘Hopefully it’s the start’ – Moyes on Hammers future
Moyes could become only the third West Ham manager to guide them to silverware, following in the fabled footsteps of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall.
There is a growing narrative that were he to achieve it the Scot, who turned 60 this year, could be forgiven for deciding to leave the club on a high, especially given their struggles in the Premier League this season which, at times, he admitted, left him close to the sack.
But speaking on Tuesday, he categorically denied suggestions that he could step down after the final, regardless of the result.
“It’s great to be sitting here in a European final, for any manager it’s a thrill, one of the pinnacles you can get in football as a coach,” he added.
“Hopefully it’s the start. I’ve always said the best years are still to come and I’m certainly enjoying the moment and being here.”
Moyes is set to start with cup goalkeeper Alphonse Areola despite Lukasz Fabianski being the club’s number one. But if the match goes to penalties Moyes will have a big decision to make.
Fabianski has an excellent spot-kick record – he has saved 11 in the Premier League alone. Areola, by contrast, dived the wrong way for eight consecutive penalties when West Ham lost an FA Cup shootout to Blackburn in November. If the final goes the distance Fabianski could be summoned from the bench and have a big part to play in this competition after all.
Full-back Vladimir Coufal and midfielder Tomas Soucek have had their sights set on reaching the final ever since the venue was confirmed; the Fortuna Arena is the home of their former club, Slavia Prague. Coufal has even promised to treat his team-mates to a famous Czech beer or two if they go on and lift the trophy.
Fiorentina plan ‘tactical’ fouls to stop Hammers playing
West Ham’s Europa League semi-final downfall against Lyon last year owed a lot to a level of gamesmanship from the French side which the Hammers were ill-prepared to face.
AZ Alkmaar tried a similar tactic at the same stage of this season’s Conference League, but Moyes and his side had learned from their experience and won home and away to seal their progress to Prague.
That will not stop Fiorentina trying their luck again, manager Vincenzo Italiano has admitted ahead of Wednesday’s showdown. And having run Champions League hopefuls Inter close in the Coppa Italia final late last month, he has reason to be confident this time it will work.
“In Prague, we will see if we can manage, with our attitude to have a different ending than the Coppa Italia final,” Italiano said.
“We have analysed West Ham. They’re very strong. They have legs, they run a lot and have quality. They are a typical English team and have an expert coach. We know their strengths and we hope we have identified some of their weaknesses. We will have to play with maximum respect and great focus.
“We will try to not give them dangerous balls and to work on tactical fouls, preventative tackles, to avoid counter-attacks. These are the counter-measures to play against this kind of attitude.
“After training, we decided to have every member of the squad taking a penalty each with an eye on the final. We have eight or nine players who are very cool-headed, but we will have to see who feels like taking one on the night if the final goes that way.”
West Ham’s route to the final…
West Ham’s journey to Prague began on August 18, three Prime Ministers ago, with a home meeting against Danish minnows Viborg.
New Italian striker Gianluca Scamacca, Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio scored in a 3-1 first-leg win. Scamacca was on target again, along with Said Benrahma and Tomas Soucek, in the away leg to secure a comprehensive 6-1 aggregate victory.
The Hammers were drawn with Romanian side FCSB, Belgium’s Anderlecht and Silkeborg of Denmark in Group B.
They fell behind to FCSB at home in their first match but goals from Bowen, Emerson Palmieri and Antonio earned a 3-1 win and David Moyes’ side went on to breeze into the knockout stages with six wins out of six.
The travelling fans were rewarded with a trip to sunny Cyprus and a tie against AEK Larnaca.
West Ham were struggling domestically, having just been knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United and thumped 4-0 at Brighton in the Premier League, but Antonio’s double settled the away leg and a brace from Bowen helped them to a 4-0 win at home, and 6-0 on aggregate, to keep the European adventure going.
Next up were another Belgian outfit, Gent, and for the first time in the competition West Ham failed to register a victory, with Danny Ings on target in a 1-1 away draw.
But despite conceding an early goal, the home leg was comfortable thanks to another Antonio double, Lucas Paqueta’s penalty and a stunning solo goal from captain Declan Rice to wrap up a 4-1 win.
Dutch dark horses AZ Alkmaar would be no pushovers in the last four having already accounted for Lazio and Anderlecht.
West Ham fell behind at the London Stadium to Tijani Reijnders’ first-half goal but Benrahma’s penalty and Antonio’s scrambled effort secured a 2-1 win.
In an edgy second leg, Pablo Fornals raced through to score the only goal in stoppage time to inflict AZ’s first European defeat in 26 matches and send the Hammers through.
What do we know about Fiorentina?
West Ham remain the bookmakers’ favourites to win the tournament, but only just following Fiorentina’s storming end to the domestic season. Italiano’s side have won eight, drawn four and lost just two matches since March, securing an eighth-placed finish in Serie A.
Their attacking style should suit Moyes’ counter-attacking tactics, but while West Ham have enjoyed a very agreeable draw on their journey to Prague, this promises to be tough.
In qualifying for the showpiece in Prague, Fiorentina became the first team to reach all four finals of the major European competitions.
They lost in the European Cup final to Real Madrid in 1957 and won the inaugural Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961 by beating Rangers 4-1 on aggregate in the final. Their last appearance in a European final was a defeat by fierce rivals Juventus in the 1990 UEFA Cup final.
Italiano, 45, spent most of his playing career as a midfielder with Verona. As a coach he led Spezia to promotion to Serie A in 2020 and kept them up the following season before moving to Fiorentina, where he guided ‘I Viola’ back into Europe for the first time since 2017.
Italiano’s free-flowing side are the top scorers in the Conference League with 36 goals, at an average of just over two-and-a-half per match. Italiano also deploys a high defensive line in a bid to squeeze the opposition and control the tempo of the match while dominating possession.
Morocco World Cup star Sofyan Amrabat could be playing his final match for the Italians amid reported interest from Barcelona and Manchester United. Fellow midfielder Antonin Barak is one of Serie A’s most creative players but could be an injury doubt for the final.
Extra police drafted into Prague
Czech police have drafted in an extra 250 officers ahead of the Europa Conference League final in Prague. Local police are working in conjunction with state police and UEFA to ensure the match passes off peacefully.
However, one officer told the Press Association there had already been “a couple of incidents” involving West Ham fans, and added that they are “prepared for trouble”.
Around 20,000 Hammers fans are expected to travel to the Czech capital, but the majority are without tickets as both clubs only have an allocation of less than 5,000 each for the match.
Thousands had already arrived in Prague by Tuesday afternoon, the day before the final. Fan parks will be set up in the city centre so those supporters without tickets can watch the match on a big screen.
A shuttle bus service has also been arranged to ferry fans straight from the airport to the parks.
West Ham’s semi-final victory at AZ Alkmaar was marred by a large group of Dutch fans attempting to storm a section full of the friends and family of West Ham’s players and staff.
Wednesday’s final is West Ham’s first in Europe since 1976, and they are bidding to win a first trophy since the FA Cup 43 years ago.