Battle lines drawn as West Ham show grit
Aston Villa 0 West ham United 0 WEST HAM S beleaguered troops showed they have the fight to haul themselves out of Premier League trouble after a battling and thoroughly deserved draw at Villa Park on Sunday afternoon, writes DAVE EVANS. The final game of
Aston Villa 0 West ham United 0
WEST HAM'S beleaguered troops showed they have the fight to haul themselves out of Premier League trouble after a battling and thoroughly deserved draw at Villa Park on Sunday afternoon, writes DAVE EVANS.
The final game of 2009 saw the Hammers surrender at Spurs like the England cricket team in South Africa as they accepted their fate almost before the first whistle had been blown.
That day they at least had Guillermo Franco available to play up front. At Villa Park there was no such luxury as Luis Jimenez and Alessandro Diamanti were both confined to the bench, while 18-year-old Frank Nouble was forced to make his first Premier League start as a lone striker.
Both he and the team performed admirably though and by the end they could have taken all three points from a game where they were never overrun and never really under the cosh.
"It is massive both to be out of the bottom three and to get a point here too," said a delighted manager Gianfranco Zola following the goalless draw.
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"It wasn't an easy task and this will give the players a big, big boost of confidence. There are so many positive things to come out of this."
Zola erred so far on the side of caution with his team selection, you would think that he was up against a team of World All Stars. Jonathan Spector was preferred to youngster Fabio Daprela, while instead of some attacking flair in midfield to support Nouble; he went with the defensively-minded Valon Behrami, Mark Noble and Radoslav Kovac to form a five-man midfield with the returning Scott Parker and Jack Collison.
It looked like they were attempting a smash and grab raid on Villa Park and it nearly worked in spectacular style after just five minutes when Nouble collected the ball in his own half, sprinted clear of former Hammer James Collins and muscled past Richard Dunne into the penalty area.
But with just the keeper to beat, he hesitated, allowed Carlos Cuellar to get back and in the end his shot flew over the bar.
"Frank had a fantastic chance, but he delayed too much and he should've taken his shot much earlier," observed Zola, who should know, he used to take chances like that for fun.
"Despite that, he posed a threat to them all of the time. That was important because you cannot afford to play a team like Villa and not cause them problems, otherwise they'll come down on top of you. Frank did very well."
He did, especially when he managed to stay on his feet! At times he was like a grizzly bear on ice skates, so ungainly did he look and so often did he hit the turf. But when he had the ball, he did pose all sorts of problems for an experienced Villa defence. He has come on leaps and bounds already from his first start against Arsenal.
Villa had begun this game as flat as a Dutch mountain, but as West Ham began to give the ball away - Kovac and Noble being the main culprits - the chances finally began to come for Martin O'Neill's team.
Ashley Young's hopeful lob forced Robert Green to palm it away, while seconds later, Gabriel Agbonlahor's shot on the turn had the West Ham keeper diving full length to his right to push it wide and keep them level.
Aside from that tho-ugh, James Tomkins and Matty Upson coped admirably with the limited Villa threat, and West Ham even had time to get up the other end where Coll-ison teed up Behrami for a shot that flew well over the top.
O'Neill must have had a few choice words to say at the break because Villa came out with all guns blazing, and piled on the pressure.
They had more corners than a warehouse full of Rubik's Cubes and it was testament to the resilience of the West Ham defence that they were to keep them at bay.
Villa came close. Emile Heskey teed up James Milner for a shot that grazed the outside of the post with Green beaten, while the home side did have the ball in the net when Milner beat two players before forcing a fumble from the goalkeeper which substitute John Carew forced over the line, only for it to be ruled out for offside.
Collins volleyed wide and met at least two corners to head them well wide, but as the second half wore on, Zola was forced to shuffle his pack and it had a hugely positive effect.
Parker limped off on 57 minutes, Kovac was hastily substituted before he was sent off, and the arrival of Diamanti and Junior Stanislas gave West Ham a new attacking purpose and also allowed the wasted Behrami to come into the middle of the park and find the form that had been so excellent against Arsenal.
"In the second half, when we brought on Alessandro Diamanti and Junior Stanislas and put them out on to the wings the game changed for the better for us," admitted Zola. "We looked really dangerous. It was a good game, a really good game."
Perhaps he should have been more positive from the beginning.
Nouble won the ball off Dunne on the left touchline before testing Brad Friedel with a low shot that the goalkeeper saved by his post, while a period of West Ham pressure ended with Diamanti picking out Stanislas on the right edge of the box and his low ball into the middle was hastily hacked over his own bar by Collins as Nouble waited to pounce at the far post.
At that point it looked like West Ham would be the more likely to nick the points, but they lost their momentum when Green inexplicably tried to dribble the ball around his own area before losing out and only being reprieved by Tomkins blocking Stilian Petrov's shot.
Four minutes of injury time was a nervous period for Hammers fans and they could hardly look when Agbonlahor turned Upson and raced clear, only to slightly mis-control and allow Green to sprint out and dive successfully at his feet.
Defeat would have been so cruel for a West Ham side who had fought hard from the first minute to the last and Zola was ecstatic with his team's efforts.
"It was a good point for us," he said. "They had some good chances, but we had some good opportunities as well and, for me, we deserved to get a point for the way we played in the second half. It was a fair game and a fair result."
He was right. Those who went to White Hart Lane must have feared the worst for this game and for the rest of the season, but this performance would have given them enormous heart.
With Carlton Cole set to return and some winnable games to come in the next few weeks, surely this West Ham team can get themselves out of trouble.
Let's not get carried away, but on this showing that is looking a distinct possibility.
West Ham: Green, Faubert, Upson, Tomkins, Spector, Behrami, Kovac (Stanislas 62), Parker (Diamanti 57), Noble, Collison, Nouble (Da Costa 90). Unused subs: Kurucz, Daprela, Jimenez, Sears.
Att: 35,646. Referee: Mike Jones (7).