AEK Larnaca 0-2 West Ham: Brilliant Michail Antonio brace keeps European tour on track for David Moyes’ side

At the double: Michail Antonio’s brace left West Ham on the verge of the quarter-finals  (AP)
At the double: Michail Antonio’s brace left West Ham on the verge of the quarter-finals (AP)

West Ham’s fans here in Larnaca spent much of Wednesday evening revelling in the woe of one Antonio, gleeful cheers erupting from every bar along the beachfront to greet Tottenham’s Champions League exit and almost certainly the beginning of the end of Conte’s reign. Given the Hammers’ away form of late, you feared it might prove the high point of the trip.

But at the AEK Arena, their own Antonio - Michail - delivered a memorable night with a superb first-half double that had the Irons cruising towards the Europa Conference League quarter-finals after only a quarter of the tie.

By the halfway stage, it might’ve been as good as over had substitute Lucas Paqueta been able to finish when going through late on, but a 2-0 victory on the road represents a job well done and a much-needed lift for David Moyes as his side belatedly picked up where they left off on their European tour.

Four months and an ongoing relegation battle had made the autumn’s perfect group stage of six wins in six games seem, both figuratively and literally, a long way removed but, barring a catastrophic implosion at the London Stadium next week, Moyes will be able to celebrate having led the Irons into the last-eight of European competition for a second season in a row.

The Scot had talked up his little-known opposition but this always looked a relatively plumb draw, the hosts having taken a yo-yo-ing route through all three tiers of Uefa competition to reach this stage.

When Larnaca kicked-off, immediately lost the ball and then did not touch it again for almost three minutes, you wondered whether the pattern might be set and a side who have never even been champions of Cyprus found to be out of their depth.

But if that brief spell was an indicator of the Premier League side’s technical superiority then it was seldom asserted again during the rest of the opening half-hour as Moyes’ side displayed the same hesitancy in defence, the same skittishness in possession, that had led to Saturday’s humiliation at Brighton. In light of that result, and seven changes to the side, an incoherent start ought to have been no surprise.

That said, the game had not been without some moments of vague interest. At one point, a cat scampered down the touchline and threatened to invade before, presumably, remembering that Kurt Zouma was back in the side, making his first appearance since suffering a thigh injury in mid-January. Said Benrahma went on one of his too-good-for-you runs but had no angle to work with when it came to a shot. The moon looked quite nice.

Manuel Lanzini’s snapshot just wide, the visitors’ first effort of the night, seemed to flick a switch, though, and on 36 minutes they nudged ahead, Antonio guiding Benrahma’s cross past a planted Kenan Piric in the home goal.

The Jamaican had, in truth, been enduring a difficult evening to that point but to say that his second goal would not have arrived without the confidence delivered by the first would be to miss the point: it is difficult to envisage a goal that Antonio, even at his bullying best, would be less likely to score.

West Ham overcame a sluggish start to take control of the tie (REUTERS)
West Ham overcame a sluggish start to take control of the tie (REUTERS)

Fed by a combination of Flynn Downes and Declan Rice, West Ham’s No9 simply bent a stunning effort around the one defender making a laboured effort to close him down and found the top corner from 20 yards with Piric, again, helpless, and the lead doubled on the cusp of the break.

The home crowd had made a fantastic and nigh-on ceaseless din, but with its friendly green and yellow seats and three uncovered stands, the AEK Arena was less cauldron of hostility and more mild Carrow Road, the half-time hospitality buffet served al fresco out the back of one of the stands probably not so feasible at Delia’s.

After the restart, Antonio raced clear onto Benrahma’s pass and set at goal with the kind of decisiveness so often lacking in his game. He did everything right, steering past Piric again in front of the away end, but saw the ball ricochet off the upright and across the face of goal when he must’ve thought it would be his to keep.

There was home pressure to be withstood late on, but mainly in the form of a string of corners rather than any clear-cut chance, though had Thilo Kehrer and Zouma not hurdled themselves in front of Ivan Trickovski’s 88th-minute hit, stoppage time might’ve taken on a different air.

In the end, West Ham should really have killed the tie, Maxwel Cornet on for his first appearance since October 1 after a persistent calf injury releasing Paqueta, who shot too close to the ‘keeper.