Eintracht Frankfurt are on their way to the Europa League final, after a combative win against West Ham United which featured two red cards.
There was a time when a football team would almost stumble onto the pitch before a match wearing tracksuit tops two sizes too small for them, each carrying a semi-inflated, leather ball which they’d hammer across the pitch as they emerged from a dark, narrow tunnel while a crackly old PA system played some oompah nonsense through speakers that sounded like they were being held upside down in a fishbowl. Those days are long gone. The teams took to the pitch at the Deutsche Bank Park for the Europa League semi-final second leg between Eintracht Frankfurt and West Ham United to an extraordinary wall of light and noise, an atmosphere that can’t not have been at least slightly intimidating to walk into.
For both clubs, this was a match of importance in and of itself. Both have some degree of European pedigree – West Ham won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965, Eintracht Frankfurt won the UEFA Cup in 1980 – and in 1976 they played each other in the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final. And these are both big clubs with relatively sparsely-stocked trophy cabinets. Throughout their entire histories, West Ham have three FA Cups to their name, while Eintracht Frankfurt have one league title and five German cups to theirs. When those days are scarce – West Ham haven’t won a major trophy in 42 years; Eintracht Frankfurt have won one since 1988 – then that trophy matters more than anything else in the world.
It hadn’t been an especially happy couple of days for the West Ham fans themselves. A group was attacked by hooligans in the city two nights before the match, and further arrests were made after confrontations in the city centre during the afternoon of the game itself. And after their team started reasonably encouragingly – Frankfurt had only won one prior home Europa League match and drawn all the rest, and there’s no reason why their own players might not have been put off slightly themselves by such fearsome pyrotechnics – everything started to fall apart in the 19th minute.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Against Lyon in the quarter-final first leg at the London Stadium, Aaron Cresswell was sent off for pulling back a defender when he was the last man back. By definition, if it was a foul (and there was talk of a foul in the build-up, but that’s irrelevant to the subsequent actions of the player), it had to be a red card. Against Frankfurt in the semi-final second leg, Cresswell was sent off for pulling back a defender when he was the last man back. By definition, if it was a foul (and there was talk that it might not be, but it cannot be denied that he put his hands on his opponent), it had to be a red card.
The referee initially gave it as a yellow, only for play to be pulled back by the video assistant, and as we all already know, this almost always leads to the card colour being upgraded. This was the moment, a very definite line in the sand when it felt as though West Ham’s European adventure was now to come apart at the seams. It wasn’t as though they didn’t have enough to do already. Losing the first leg at home meant having to win in front of 50-odd thousand very noisy and very passionate Germans, and losing a man so early in the return leg felt like a step too far. Sure enough, seven minutes later, Ansgar Knauff crossed, Santos Borre scored, and it looked like the jig was finally up.
Well, not quite. The first glimmers of life came a minute from half-time, when Kurt Zouma had a header cleared off the line by Evan Ndicka, and just after the midway point in the second half Frankfurt had to scramble the ball clear after a low cross from Michail Antonio was palmed out by by goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. Said Benrahma had an appeal for handball waved away. Rather than buckling, West Ham’s remaining ten players were putting up a bit of a fight, and this even extended to the benches when David Moyes was sent to join Cresswell in the dressing room – ‘Alright, gaffer? Did you leave your phone in here?’ – after an outburst that resulted in him kicking… something.
And if it does become open season upon Cresswell over his momentary lapse(s) of reason, then Moyes should be criticised, too. Not only is he frankly old enough to know better, but the set-to and red card also fundamentally disrupted his team’s rhythm from a slow build-up of pressure that had been rising over the previous five or ten minutes. It was a rhythm that West Ham couldn’t quite tap back into after the delay and it wasn’t until the final few minutes before they started to get back into the game. Their chances finally seemed to fade and die for the last time in the 90th minute, when Tomas Soucek headed narrowly wide from a corner.
As the five minutes of stoppage-time ran down without significant incident, something unusual happened behind the goal, when gates seemed to be open to let hundreds of home fans to stand immediately behind the goal. A few seconds later the crowd streamed onto the pitch, only to be pushed back by the German police, who formed a line ten yards inside the far half of the pitch, presumably to prevent confrontation with the West Ham supporters. The worst of any trouble inside the stadium seemed to be averted, but whether the evening night passed off peacefully outside is another matter.
In a football world that can at times feel skewered towards an ever-diminishing number of clubs, the Europa League is a timely reminder of the bio-diversity of European club football. It’s not the same half-dozen clubs steamrollering their way through the field to a point at which they start knocking each other over and out. And there was no question of how much this match meant to the two teams concerned. From the pre-match march on the London Stadium before the first leg to the pyrotechnics and pitch invasion of the second, the desire of Frankfurt was clear and evident.
For West Ham there is only disappointment at the end of their European adventure, and a feeling that things could have been different had it not been for that early rush of blood to the head. The Europa League has given the club an identity at the London Stadium, and it’s been an adventure just to get this far. But on the night fortune did end up hiding from them; the light and noise eventually won the day.