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Cresswell red seals West Ham’s fate as Europa League dream dies

T

o call this a game too far for this West Ham side would be to miss the point.

A thin and fatiguing squad probably reached that point weeks ago, as their Premier League form would attest, but in this competition they have always found more, spurred on in each round by both their novelty of their presence in it and the chance to make yet more history by going a step further.

At home to Europa League masters Sevilla and away to French giants Lyon they produced scintillating displays, perhaps the finest of David Moyes’ tenure, to advance to a stage of the tournament that hardly felt reachable when the Scot was talking of simply wanting to get out of the group in the autumn.

But here, at a ceaselessly raucous Deutsch Bank Park, against a team who have similarly risen to the occasion in Europe, conquering Barcelona while failing to crack the top half of the Bundesliga, once Aaron Cresswell had been sent off after just 19 minutes?

Well, they never really stood a chance.

As Cresswell trudged off the pitch, his yellow card for a last-man tug on Jens Petter Hauge upgraded to red once referee Jesus Gil Manzano had consulted the pitch side monitor at the request of the VAR, it was possible to feel mixed emotions: sympathy, of course, for a man having the biggest night of his career ended before it had really begun; but also disbelief, that a senior professional with more than 500 games under his belt might be sent off twice in as many crucial knockout ties for near-identical, avoidable offences.

In fact, the Englishman’s two straight cards in three European outings were more than he had been shown across the rest of his 14-year senior club career.

Some felt his dismissal in the quarter-final first-leg against Lyon for a foul on Moussa Dembele was harsh, but no one could argue here.

Against the French side, his ten remaining teammates had rallied, even taking the lead through Jarrod Bowen before salvaging a 1-1 draw to take to Lyon.

Here, Moyes barely had time to get a replacement, Ben Johnson, on, with Manuel Lanzini the sacrificial lamb, before Rafael Borré had the net bulging.

That the goal came down the same left flank Cresswell had briefly occupied was a further cruel twist, wing-back Ansgar Knauff again causing trouble down the right as he had at the London Stadium, pulling back perfectly for Borré, whose clever movement had done for Craig Dawson as he swept home in space.

There were nearly moments in the search for an immediate repost and a lifeline, Kurt Zouma seeing an effort he did not seem to know a great deal about cleared off the line, while Evan N’Dicka, excellent on his return from suspension, denied Michail Antonio the chance to run clear through on goal.

At half-time, the Hammers headed into the dressing room in need of a swig of miracle juice, only to find that Real Madrid had already drunk the continent dry.

Yes, there was more composure about their play after the restart, instigated by on-field general Declan Rice, who spent most of the night pleading desperately for calm in a motion that was anything but.

A threat, too, whenever Jarrod Bowen had space to carry the ball and the fact that you could barely tell West Ham were a man down from the pattern of play made it all the more frustrating that they were.

But when the time came to launch a late salvo the visitors had less than nothing left, epitomised by Antonio who, having buried himself for the cause again, was hands on knees exhausted at just the moment you’d want him leading the charge.

By the time the final whistle came, Moyes was not there to hear it – not that many could against the din – banished from the touchline having appeared to volley the ball back with interest at a time-wasting ball boy.

For all the terrific moments he has enjoyed on this journey, it was certainly not one of which the Scot will be proud, an historic adventure that was part-redemption story afforded a sorry ending in the shape of the second inexcusable West Ham red card of the night.

In truth, though, their fate was sealed within minutes of the first.

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