West Ham United faced mission impossible tonight in their Europa League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla. The Spanish side have lost just once at Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán this season, to Lille in the Champions League. The east London side played well, and created their fair share of chances, but were unable to avoid defeat against the six-time winners of this competition.
Sevilla are old hands at continental knockout football, while West Ham were playing in European competition post-Christmas for the first time in forty years. The disparity was not reflected in how the two sides went about their work. Both sides attacked diligently, trying to score first blood in this two-legged tie.
Munir had an early chance to assert dominance, but he steered a header wide with Lucas Ocampos shaping to shoot behind him. West Ham responded with a double-chance. Declan Rice headed a free kick into the path of Nikola Vlasic. The Croatian midfielder had his diving header well-saved, and Michail Antonio couldn’t steer his follow-up shot on target.
Both sides had their moments in an open first half, but as the minutes ticked by it was Sevilla who took control. A tidy pass from Marcos Acuna found Munir in between Aaron Cresswell and Kurt Zouma. The former Barcelona star curled a shot wide, and the Hammers breathed a sigh of relief. Youssef En-Nesyri directed a header at Alphonse Areola, as the home team began to enjoy frequent sights of goal. David Moyes’ side held strong though, going into half-time with their clean sheet intact.
The Hammers started the half on the front foot, with Antonio laying the ball off beautifully for Soucek to strike. Bono saved well, having had plenty of time to track the flight of the distance-strike, but it was an early warning sign that West Ham were still a threat.
Oliver Torres carved out a glaring chance for En-Nesyri, but the Moroccan striker directed a tame header straight at Areola. Sevilla would not go on wasting chances though. Munir, a late replacement after Ivan Rakitic was injured in the warm-up, volleyed an Acuna free kick smoothly past a rooted Areola to give his side the lead. The marking at the set piece was lax from West Ham, and they were punished.
Manuel Lanzini nearly put the Hammers back on terms. Former Manchester City man Jesus Navas was forced into a heroic block to stop a side-footed finish from the Argentine. It was proof positive of Navas’ transition into a valuable defender, a process Pep Guardiola began at the Etihad.
Lanzini had another chance as West Ham poured forward. A Pablo Fornals delivery was headed clear, and Lanzini dragged his shot wide. Said Benrahma was another bright spark in claret and blue. His clever movement and direct running dragged the Sevilla back line out of position, creating several openings.
After Navas’ intervention, another familiar face to Premier League fans emerged when Manchester United’s on-loan forward Anthony Martial replaced Munir. The France international has endured an unhappy time so far in Andalusia, but his record of six career goals against the Hammers made him an appealing change for Julen Lopetegui.
It was the fiery Ocampos who continued to present the most clear and present danger to West Ham. The former River Plate winger cut inside and arrowed a shot just wide of Areola’s far post. Still West Ham fought back though, passing well and trying to construct a late chance that would rewrite the script.
The film had already been submitted for academy consideration though, and there would be no award for West Ham on this night. What there was in abundance were encouraging signs. Frailties in Sevilla from which David Moyes and his players can take solace as they prepare for the second leg at the London Stadium. West Ham are still very much in this tie, but they will have to produce on their own patch.