The pair added to their goal and assist tallies as David Moyes’ side scored four goals for the second Premier League game in a row
Antonio and Benrahma continued their exceptional start to the season at the London Stadium (Photo: Reuters)
LONDON STADIUM — And finally, it was West Ham’s turn.
After watching the 19 other Premier League clubs welcome back their supporters after 18 months away – and playing the role of party poopers for Newcastle’s St James’ Park homecoming on the opening weekend – the London Stadium opened its doors to its supporters once more.
This cavernous new build hasn’t always been associated with a positive atmosphere but a combination of 541 days away, the team’s recent success and an 8pm Monday kick-off that enabled fans to sink a few hoppy delights from the various craft beer establishments dotted about the Hackney Wick canal, ensured there was a carnival mood pre-kick-off.
All of this noise could take the players some getting used to. When a loose ball squirted out of the Leicester box and landed at Declan Rice’s feet he did what he was told by firing an ambitious effort on goal that flew over the top. Last season, when there wasn’t 60,000 pumped-up Hammers urging him to “SHOOOOT!” he probably would have taken the more sensible option and passed to Said Benrahma instead.
With 26 minutes played the moment West Ham fans have been waiting for arrived. A swift counter-attack, initiated by a misplaced pass from Jamie Vardy in the centre circle, weaved its way out to Benrahma on the left wing and the scampering winger picked out Pablo Fornals to sweep home the finish. Cue pandemonium in the stands.
Another outpouring of noise followed soon after, albeit in different circumstances when Ayoze Perez was shown a straight red for planting his studs into Fornals’ left shin.
Cheers at Michael Oliver’s decision – made after consulting his pitchside monitor for maximum pantomime impact – turned to boos after the challenge was flashed up on the two big screens. Perez’s defence was that it was unintentional. That might well have been true, but it was an ugly, reckless challenge worthy of a red. “Horrific” was how Gary Neville described it on Monday Night Football.
Even before Perez’s sending off, West Ham had been in the ascendancy, out-shooting their visitors six to one in the opening half an hour, despite having less of the ball. Nobody is quite sure what the phrase the “West Ham way” actually means, but under Moyes the way is counter-attacking and they are very good at it: no team has scored more fast-break goals than the Hammers since the start of last season.
Benrahma made it two just before the hour mark after Caglar Soyuncu’s calamitous back-pass had rolled into the path of an unmarked Antonio, who squared it for his teammate to tuck home. The 26-year-old endured a difficult debut campaign in east London after signing from Brentford last autumn but has carried his dazzling pre-season form into the first two games.
Benrahma scored once and provided six assists in 30 league games in 2020-21, contributing directly to a goal every 198 minutes. After scoring and assisting two apiece in the opening two games this season, he is averaging a goal involvement every 44 minutes. Unless Moyes has unlocked Algeria’s answer to Lionel Messi, that rate is unsustainable, but more should be expected to follow given the confidence and swagger he is playing with at the moment.
At times, last year, Benrahma looked to be operating on a different wavelength to that of his teammates, a silky smooth playmaker playing at a leisurely pace in a team geared towards blitzing teams on the break. Now, he is an integral part of the Moyes machine.
Leicester were furious when Perez was sent off after a VAR check (Photo: AP)
With a two-goal lead and an extra man advantage, West Ham appeared to have an unassailable lead over a side that finished just a point above them in last year’s standings. There were “Olé’s” from the crowd when Aaron Cresswell tried to smash an optimistic volley into the top corner. If anything, it was all too comfortable until Youri Tielemans’ scrappy finish from close-range briefly brought the Foxes back into it.
As if irritated that Leicester had threatened to make life difficult, West Ham swiftly regained control and settle the contest once and for all. Declan Rice’s give-and-go with Cresswell dissected Leicester’s right-hand side, before Antonio held off Soyuncu, swivelled and arrowed a low shot into the far corner.
It was a landmark strike for the converted striker, taking him beyond Paolo Di Canio as West Ham’s leading scorer in the Premier League on 48 goals. He had less than five minutes to wait for the 49th, toe-poking the ball under Kasper Schmeichel before racing off to celebrate with a cardboard cut-out of himself by the bubble machines. Ever the entertainer is Antonio.
With the game well and truly up, Moyes took the opportunity to give his dynamic duo a rest while also handing Mark Noble his first minutes of a final season in claret and blue. The deafening applause that greeted Antonio’s departure was maintained as Mr West Ham himself trotted on, bringing a perfect end to the perfect evening.