West Ham United players celebrate Andriy Yarmolenko's goal during the UEFA Europa League match between West Ham United and Sevilla at London Stadium, London, March 2022.

Thank you, Yarmolenko, you’ve dried the tears of the Roberto & Zaza years

It was a night that will keep West Ham fans warm on cold nights for years to come. 

Put simply, West Ham’s 2-0 win over Sevilla was more than just a result that secured a place in the Europa League quarter-finals – the furthest they’ve progressed in European competition since 1981.

It was a moment to cherish and savour. It was a moment that justified all those away trips where the Hammers offered all the resistance of a piece of wet tissue.

It was for everybody that has turned up at the London Stadium since 2016, with their hearts yearning for Upton Park, to support Simone Zaza and Roberto.

And for all the schoolchildren across the country whose choice of team has provoked ridicule and teasing from their peers.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Thursday night’s victory over the serial Europa League champions was one of the greatest in West Ham’s history.

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg in Seville, David Moyes demanded a raucous atmosphere. It’s safe to say his wish was granted; West Ham supporters packed the London Stadium and created a deafening din. Sevilla were spooked.

Every home player stepped up; Alphonse Areola made a stunning save from Youssef En-Nesyri just as Sevilla began to settle and Declan Rice was his usual superb self.

Craig Dawson and Kurt Zouma kept attackers at bay with the efficiency of nightclub bouncers while Anthony Martial spent the evening in Ben Johnson’s pocket.

Pablo Fornals and Manuel Lanzini, often indistinguishable to the casual viewer, ran themselves into the ground. Michail Antonio did the same; his ability to switch between world-class and Sunday League in the same move personifies West Ham.

And it was Antonio’s persistence that created the first goal. He looked to have overplayed on the edge of the Sevilla penalty area but, in drifting wide, the Jamaica international managed to dig out the perfect floating cross.

Tomas Soucek, wearing the kind of headband that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the French Open, looped the ball home. Sixty thousand people had a collective orgasm in response.

It was turning into one of those nights, a rare occasion where you can sense history is unfolding before your eyes.

Generations of Hammers fans have been bought up with stories about Eintracht Frankfurt in 1976 or Ipswich in 2004, nights that have assumed a mythical status in the absence of trophy wins or tangible success.

But the second goal wouldn’t come.

The grins of the West Ham faithful would become a grimace as they were forced onto the back foot, Sevilla’s wayward shots and long balls giving way to shorter, neater, antagonising passes.

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West Ham United supporters before their match against Sevilla in Seville, Spain, March 2022.

READ: Away Days: Sevilla, Cruzcampo & the rare joy of blowing bubbles abroad

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Extra-time was inevitable. And, remarkably, considering their small squad, West Ham found a second wind.

Chances came and went. One Fornals corner found Dawson, who nodded the ball down and watched its bounce carry it to Soucek.

But the midfielder couldn’t find the mark with a close-range header, the angle working against him. Half the stadium thought it was in and the tension was becoming unbearable.

So, when Fornals had a shot spilt by Bono, it was fortunate that the rebound fell to the coolest man in east London.

Andriy Yarmolenko has endured a hellish time since Russia violated Ukraine and its sovereignty. Captain of the national team, Yarmolenko was granted compassionate leave and frantically tried to guide his family to the safety of Poland.

Football pales into insignificance in moments like these. Anybody with a working brain cell (which excludes the Chelsea fans chanting Roman Abramovich’s name) knows this.

But the winger gifted himself a modicum of escapism by knocking the ball into an unguarded net. Cue bedlam, tears and that bubbles machine causing mischief.

After the ecstasy, there was the realisation that fighting still needed to be done. There was still danger to be navigated. West Ham, eschewing their status as European novices, did all they needed to.

After the final whistle, Mark Noble, who is retiring at the end of the season, was wiping the tears away. So were legions of burly Essex men in the stands.

The most realistic person in the stadium was Moyes who, confirming all stereotypes about the Scots, preached caution afterwards.

“If you want to be a big club, you have to get used to being in all the time,” he said.

“We are climbing a mountain but we are base camp at the moment. This result will give us a lot of confidence. We have had two really tough and close games against the side that is second in La Liga.

“People say Spanish football is not quite the same but we have seen what Atletico Madrid and Villarreal have done this week [knocking Manchester United and Juventus out of Europe]. Sevilla are above those two.

“This win felt fantastic but we don’t get a cup for that. We have to refocus and have another go.”

There will be plenty of sore heads in the East End this morning, the celebrations matching the magnitude of the victory. After knocking out Sevilla, the sky is the limit for Moyes and his West Ham side.

Perhaps those bubbles will reach the sky this time.

By Michael Lee

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