Cup defeat could be blessing in disguise

West Ham United 1 Arsenal 2 THE TRIED and tested response to any exit at the third round stage in the FA Cup is to say that the team can now concentrate on the league. In the case of West Ham, never was a truer word spoken, as this really could be a bless

West Ham United 1 Arsenal 2

THE TRIED and tested response to any exit at the third round stage in the FA Cup is to say that the team can now concentrate on the league. In the case of West Ham, never was a truer word spoken, as this really could be a blessing in disguise, writes DAVE EVANS.

In truth, the Hammers deserved a replay for their valiant exertions in this clash. Without Carlton Cole, Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Jack Collison and Guillermo Franco it was always going to be an uphill struggle, but it was only the introduction of two Arsenal substitutes that was to finally turn the game in favour of the Gunners.

"I'm pleased for the performance of the team and I couldn't ask for anything more," came the familiar after-match sentiments of manager Gianfranco Zola. This time though he was absolutely spot on.

Youngster Frank Nouble made his first start in claret and blue as a lone striker and found himself up against William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen; Fabio Daprela was making his debut and impressed at left back, while winger Anthony Edgar also made his West Ham bow as a late substitute.

Neither Nouble or Daprela let the team down. They hassled, battled, and made a nuisance of themselves. Matty Upson put in a captain's performance that was only soured by Eduardo getting up above him to head home the winner. Junior Stanislas was full of running and confidence; Alessandro Diamanti brimming with invention and attitude, while Valon Behrami was simply everywhere.

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This West Ham team could not match Arsenal in class, but they more than mat-ched them in endeavour and sheer hard work and for a while it looked like it would be enough.

"We looked very much in control, then those subs changed the game," confessed Zola. "The first goal was a bit fortunate and after that we struggled to keep the team close to each other. We struggled closing down the spaces and when they brought in those two players, they changed gear."

Diamanti was the major thorn in Arsenal's side during the first half. He shot over the top after just 10 minutes, had another effort blocked and then forced a decent save from Lukasz Fabianski with a swinging shot just before the half hour.

Arsenal had their mom-ents, but lacked a real cutting edge. James Tomkins gifted the ball to Edu-ardo, whose shot was well held by Robert Green, while Verm-aelen fired well over when the goalkeeper's clearance had fallen invitingly at his feet.

But it was West Ham who looked most likely and after Stanislas and Luis Jimenez had both fired wide, the Hammers grabbed the lead right on the stroke of half time.

Behrami played a delightful through ball to Diamanti, and the Italian kept his cool to squeeze his shot past the goalkeeper and in off the post.

"The difference is that in the first 15 minutes of the second half, when we had the game in hand, we had so many opportunities, but we didn't manage to close the game down," stressed the Hammers boss.

At the time it didn't feel like that, but on reflection Zola was probably right. Stanislas put in Nouble who shot wide; the big striker then blasted his way through three defenders into the box, but couldn't get enough power into his effort, before Diamanti's delightful ball put in Stanislas only for Fabianski to make a superb save.

Eduardo shot over after a Tomkins mistake at the other end, but it was still the Hammers flying forward.

Another superb Diamanti pass put Julien Faubert away, but the Frenchman opted to try and find Nouble instead of shooting himself and his cross was too long, while twice Jimenez made storming runs forward only to find once he got into position, he had absolutely no idea what to do with the ball.

A second goal in that opening period of the second half and West Ham would probably have been booking their Stoke hotel for the next round, but on 65 minutes, Arsene Wenger brought on Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri and the game changed almost immediately.

Nouble tired visibly, but as West Ham prepared to replace him with Freddie Sears, the Gunners finally levelled the scores.

Green had already made a stunning double save from Diaby and Alex Song, but on 79 minutes, Carlos Vela slipped a pass to Aaron Ramsey and he shot across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.

Three minutes later it was all over. Vela was allowed to cross from the left and Eduardo blasted his header into the top corner, despite a despairing hand from Green.

There was no way back for the tiring Hammers and but for Daprela's clearance off the line, Song's shot over and Green's late save from Eduardo, Arsenal would have added to their tally.

That would have been cruel on West Ham though, as Zola testified. "I take a lot of positives from this game," he insisted. "I must say that the team is giving 100 per cent and if we maintain those conditions, trust me, when we have everybody back, this team is going to be different and very tough to beat."

FA Cup runs are magnificent, West Ham fans will tell you that as much as any other set of supporters, but there are times when there are other priorities. Would the average fan have taken a win against Arsenal here, over one against Wolves next Sunday?

Premier League survival is the be all and end all these days and the first fight that Zola must win is to keep his best players at the club.

It should be a very interesting and nervous January.

West Ham: Green, Faubert, Upson, Tomkins, Daprela, Behrami, Kovac, Stanislas (Edgar 88), Diamanti, Jimenez, Nouble (Sears 79). Unused subs: Stech, Da Costa, Payne, Lee, N'Gala.

Att: 25,549. Referee: Mark Clattenburg (7).