Another year, another European semi-final, only this time we’re hoping to avoid the disappointment of last season’s Europa League exit at the same stage. The Conference League has delivered us Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, who are comfortably sitting fourth in the Eredivisie, as our opponents to beat to get to the final. The chance of winning a trophy is within touching distance.
So what about our opposition, what are our chances against them? I spoke to some fans of the side from the Netherlands to get the lowdown. Their season seems to be going well, from a distance. So how do the supporters feel about it?
‘I think we have a very mixed season. We started off really strong, but lost too many points against some small opponents’, said Bart.
‘Of course our European season has been amazing, with some brilliant matches. But, the season can only be a success if we win a prize, and there’s only one left we could win.’ AZ Alerts commented: ‘We have had a very good start to the season. However, this season is known for the amount of injuries.
‘At the beginning of the season, our entire vanguard was injured. When they were fit, five or six central defenders got injured. Now our attackers are injured again. ‘AZ always has to get at least 4th place and this seems certain so far. However, due to the failure of the competition, there could certainly have been more. We should have progressed in the cup.
‘For the Conference League we had great matches against Anderlecht and especially Lazio and we deserved to continue. ‘Now against West Ham. A fun and exciting game where West Ham is obviously a favorite despite West Ham’s mediocre Premier League season.
‘The differences in budget, and therefore also the size of the selections, is the first thing that immediately stands out. ‘However, we have some nice talents that might make a difference. In any case, it will be two beautiful duels!’
Jens, on the other hand, was a little more positive about the whole season: ‘Honestly, it’s a great season. ‘AZ supporters tend to look for what could have been better, but it’s almost May and we are still in a European competition and in the race for spot three in the Eredivisie, with a young team that has shown some very mature football and some great resilience, for example, against Anderlecht.
‘This season’s been drawn by many injuries, especially in the back, but for our main attackers Pavlidis and Karlsson as well, which makes it even more remarkable that we are where we are now. ‘Moreover, the recent Youth League win of AZ -19 brings hope for the future – we’ve got some very bright talents coming up.’
Onto the upcoming games, then. Which players should West Ham be wary of in the AZ squad? Georgio is confident: ‘West Ham should be worried about the whole team. Lazio and Roma also thought AZ Alkmaar was an easy game, but we won twice.
‘We have a lot of upcoming players like Kerkez, Reijnders, Beukema, Hatzidiakos, Pavlidis, Sugawara and Karlsson. ‘After this season, bigger clubs will buy them for big money. We can’t refuse. AZ has a good chance to win the cup.’
While Jaja simply says: ‘Milos Kerkez, the most talented left back in the world.” Okay, we’ll keep an eye out and maybe so should our scouts!
Again, West Ham need to go into these ties confidently, knowing that our squad is top quality, as it has proven towards the end of April. What players of ours are the AZ fans looking out for? Dejedylan noted: ‘Benrahma and Bowen could be dangerous, because AZ plays with really attacking-minded fullbacks.’
Van is also aware of our threats: ‘Of course your star players Rice and Paquetá. But I’m most looking forward to the duels between Milos Kerkez and Jarrod Bowen. ‘Furthermore, I find West Ham deadly effective in set pieces. It will be two great matches. I expect that the winner of these games will also win the Conference League.’
Let’s get down to business then, which of the two sides is going to progress to the final? How are the AZ fans feeling?
Willem kicks us off: ‘50/50 I think, but maybe a small advantage for AZ.’ Maty is also on the fence: ‘I think the odds will be in AZ’s advantage when West Ham isn’t safe from relegation. Yet, I think West Ham is still the better side.’
This is going to be a close tie, as Pelle is also unsure: ‘I think we have a chance but they have to give 150%. ‘West Ham is a great team and they play in the Premier League so we can’t underestimate them. If luck is on our side there is a chance!’
And finally, let’s look at the bigger picture. There are four teams left in the Conference League. Who will lift the trophy? Twan says: ‘I was born in Alkmaar and a big AZ fan so I’m probably a bit biased. But I honestly think we have a chance against West Ham, even with West Ham playing a bit better lately.
‘I think Basel are a really good side that can also cause an upset. So I think the final will be between AZ and Basel with AZ winning it all.’ Nick added: ‘So the winner of our semi-final either The Irons or AZ Alkmaar will win the tournament. My hopes are up for AZ to take the trophy.’
Nick also told me why he’s happy to be playing against us in this European tie. He continued: ‘This year my dad (Giel) passed away and he always wanted AZ to draw West Ham in Europe.
‘He used to arrange football trips to Upton Park. It was fabulous to have witnessed players like di Canio, Tevez, Cole and Noble. He loved the atmosphere at the park and the club. ‘So I am grateful that we finally face each other.’
And for that reason, Nick, we’re glad we got drawn together too. West Ham fans love to hear of how other fans take to our club. Our semi final is looking like being a close contest, with both sets of fans fancying their chances after impressive European campaigns.
A final will be a real boost for the whole club. I can’t say I’m confident we’ll make it, but I hope we give it a good go. If I’d have been asked who’ll lift the trophy out of the four clubs left, I think I might have sat on the fence!