Prague’s Eden Arena was the scene of a momentous clash between two sleeping European giants, fighting desperately to be named the 2023 UEFA Europa Conference League winners. West Ham have had to wait since 1965 since their last European trophy – and Fiorentina have waited an extra four years, but this newly created trophy provided them both with a golden opportunity to end their droughts.
FIO: Terracciano; Biraghi, Ranieri, Milenkovic, Dodo; Mandragora, Amrabat, Bonaventura; Kouame, Jovic, Gonzalez
WHU: Areola, Emerson, Aguerd, Zouma, Coufal; Rice, Soucek; Benrahma, Paqueta, Bowen; Antonio
The magnitude and importance of the fixture could not be understated, despite the limited history of the tournament. An estimated 25,000 Hammers came to the Czech Republic with only 6,000 of them having tickets to the final. The excitement -or uneasiness for some – was not limited to the stands, however, as the players clearly had a lot of nervous energy, playing the opening minutes at an extreme tempo.
It was the East London club who had the first chance of the game, as their captain went close. A long throw from Vladimir Coufal was not effectively dealt with, and the ball bobbled out to Declan Rice. The midfielder struck a half volley – but a poor connection meant his effort went just wide of the post. But from this point forward, the first half was dominated largely by Fiorentina, who excel at keeping possession of the ball. They prevented any West Ham counterattacks, and looked to build momentum over time.
Their progress was halted, however, as a moment of stupidity from one West Ham fan resulted in a break of play. When setting up to take a corner, Cristiano Biraghi was struck on the back of the head by a vape thrown from the stands. He was badly cut, and the medical team were forced to take a look.
A matter of minutes later, Fiorentina and Biraghi thought they had gotten their revenge, as Luka Jokic had the ball in the back of the net after a cross from Nicolás González was met at the back post by Christian Kouamé. His header was directed at goal, but came off the post – and while Jovic was fastest to the rebound, he came from an offside position to score. Thus, the first half ended goalless.
The first 45 minutes may have been quiet with limited chances, but the game came to life in the second half. Fiorentina’s control of possession resumed, but as it looked like the Italian side were settling into a rhythm, West Ham were given a chance that their fans had been dreaming of.
A long throw from Coufal was directed towards Jarod Bowen who was being tightly followed by Biraghi. As the Englishman chested it down, however, Biraghi’s momentum forced him to an uncomfortable position – ultimately punching the ball away from Bowen’s chest. It was not seen originally by the officials, but after an extensive VAR check, the decision was overturned and West Ham had a penalty. Saïd Benrahma stepped up, and in the most pressurised moment of his career, remained calm to make it 1-0.
Three-quarters of the stadium were sent into delirium, almost unable to fathom the fact that they were leading in a European final. Unfortunately for the Londoners, though, their glee was short lived. Fiorentina managed to successfully nullify West Ham’s surge of momentum and fire back themselves.
After so much pretty, measured football, it was a long ball which was the key to unlock West Ham’s defence. It was sent wide on the right to Gonzalez, who rose well and headed it down neatly to Giacomo Bonaventura. The Italian controlled the ball well, firing an effort across Areola’s goal that proved too much for the Frenchman – and the game was levelled.
Nerves, stress and apprehension followed. Both teams determined to win – but desperate not to lose. The game was timid and lacking quality, until the 90th minute that was. Lucas Paqueta picked the ball up on the halfway line, and saw Bowen bursting in behind the Fiorentina defence. A perfectly weighted ball placed the winger in behind the opposition defence, and one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
The few seconds between receiving the ball and striking it felt like an age. The glare of all the fans in the stadium intensified, the moment of silence as the ball raced towards the net was piercing, but the roar that followed the net bulging was deafening. The fans in the stand erupted as David Moyes set off sprinting down the touchline – a sight which will live long in West Ham folklore.
A lengthy period of injury time followed – though it felt like hours for those in the stands and back home in East London. Players were launching themselves into tackles, exerting every last drop of energy they had as the finishing line was so close. Every clearance was celebrated, and every tackle hailed by the West Ham support. The late Fiorentina onslaught came to no good, however, and the final whistle cemented this West Ham side into their club’s history. They had finally ended their drought for silverware, and what a way to do it. West Ham are the Europa Conference League winners, and this is a night that nobody involved will ever forget.