West Ham United 2 Chelsea 1: Goals courtesy of Cheikhou Kouyate and Edimilson Fernandes handed Slaven Bilic’s men their third consecutive victory
West Ham players congratulate Cheikhou Kouyate who handed the home side an early lead Getty
This should have the been the night when the London Stadium felt finally open for business. This was its ninth game, at the end of its third month, but West Ham United gave the stadium and its crowd the performance they deserved, the performance everyone had been waiting for.
And yet the night was stained by a mass confrontation between home and away fans behind one goal in the game’s final minutes. At least two seats were thrown, but by the time the final whistle went, the police had separated the fans again.
What the West Ham fans needed, what they came here for, was something to believe in. After too many bad outings at the London Stadium, too many fresh reminders of what this place is not, they needed a performance to get behind. Against someone stronger than Sunderland, Accrington or Domzale.
Who better to come here, then, than Chelsea? A hated cross-town rival, but not one at their best, rotating some of their stronger players from the start. The West Ham players have not always lived up to their big new stage but here they did, producing an intense industrious first half display that was as well as they started any match this season.
West Ham’s start was made even more impressive by the fact that they started the game without a recognised striker. Slaven Bilic, like Antonio Conte, has turned to a 3-4-3 formation in recent weeks, and like Conte has found his team stabilised by it. But here Bilic had to pick his three most dangerous players, Michail Antonio, Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini, in his front three, hoping they would be incisive enough to pick through Chelsea’s lumbering backline.
It was a risk but it worked. Just 10 minutes in, Antonio won a free-kick from Gary Cahill. That led to a corner, which came out to Mark Noble 30 yards out. He swung in a cross, and Cheikhou Kouyate jumped above John Terry to head it in.
The ground erupted and West Ham continued to drive forward, fuelled by the best atmosphere they have enjoyed here. Antonio skewed one shot just wide, before beating David Luiz down the left and crossing to Lanzini, who could not get enough on his flick. Asmir Begovic had to save well from Payet’s free-kick and Pedro Obiang from distance, and West Ham were wondering at the break how they were not ahead by more.
Anxiety is natural, but they need not have worried. Three minutes after the restart West Ham had scored again. Begovic smothered Payet’s far-post shot but when the ball came back out to Edimilson Fernandes, Chelsea did not switch on. So Fernandes cut inside Ola Aina, onto his left foot, and beat Begovic into the far bottom corner. When Noble shot just wide from distance, Chelsea knew they were in a game. Diego Costa was thrown on, then Eden Hazard, then Pedro.
This was a different Chelsea team, so attacking that it had Pedro as left wing-back and Oscar in central midfield. They had created half-chances beforehand but now they had an extra fizz, an extra edge.
Any defeat of Chelsea, to reach a cup quarter-final, would mean the world to West Ham. But this win meant more than that. Because it reminded West Ham, for the first real time this season, of a few things that had been slipping into doubt. That there is still a good team here, with a good manager, if only they can all pull in the same direction. Or that leaving their old home does not mean that they have lost everything, if they can still produce nights like this.
What West Ham do in the quarter-finals is anyone’s guess, and their league form certainly has a long way to go. But this felt like the end of their spiral.
For Antonio Conte’s Chelsea this was a reminder that there is still plenty of work to do. He changed his team here, weakening it, and they could not cope with West Ham’s drive or speed. By the time he brought his top players back on it was too late.