This was nearly the night when the London Stadium finally felt open for business. Its ninth game, at the end of its third month, and West Ham United gave the stadium and its crow the performance they deserved, the performance everyone had been waiting for.
And then, in the final minutes of the match, a mass confrontation flared behind one goal, between home and away fans. It was quickly quelled but the damage was done, not least to popular memories of this evening with everyone who was here.
Except for the trouble, this could have been one of the great nights in West Ham’s recent history. Of course 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 themselves, if they can still produce nights like this.
Whether West Ham can go to Old Trafford and win is a long shot, and their league form certainly has to improve a long way. But this night felt like a turning point, a confirmation that the defeats of Crystal Palace and Sunderland were, if not the start of something, then at least the end of their spiral. Here, at long last, was something to build on, something to believe in.
In that sense this was a rare night when West Ham fans got exactly what they were hoping for. 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 Bournemouth, Sunderland, Accrington or Domzale, their four home scalps before tonight.
Who better to come here, then, than Chelsea? A cross-town rival, but not one at their best, with Antonio Conte resting many of his best players. By the time Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Pedro came on, the game had already been lost. West Ham had taken it away from Chelsea’s youngsters and fringe men, playing with an industry and intensity that was beyond anything they had produced all season.
Both teams have stabilised in recent weeks thanks to a new 3-4-3 system, providing a run of clean sheets desperately needed for both managers. Here, though, West Ham were operating without a recognised striker, so few were the options at Bilic’s disposal. He picked 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. For too long in the opening hour they had looked like they wanted it less than their hosts, second to every loose ball, as Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang cleaned up in midfield.
Conte admitted afterwards that he did not expect West Ham to score their second so soon, and so quickly threw on Costa, then Hazard, then Pedro when they did. This was a new Chelsea team, with an extra fizz, an extra edge. Luiz found Costa, who pulled it back to Willian, but he dragged his shot wide. The next time they combined Willian played in Costa, whose chip faded away from the post.
But there was a moment to get back into the game, and Chelsea missed it. West Ham, by the end luxuriating in the feel of imminent triumph, could slow the play down and threaten on the break. By the time Chelsea pulled one back, as Gary Cahill bundled in a corner, the game was up. That was the last kick of the night, even if by that point most people’s eyes had switched to the stands.