Lovely 'Rita spares Hammers blushes

WEST HAM lived to fight another day in the FA Cup, but this game really didn t go the way everyone at Upton Park had planned it, WRITES DAVE EVANS. The in-form Hammers were supposed to trample all over fast-fading Boro and sweep to an emphatic victory, be

WEST HAM lived to fight another day in the FA Cup, but this game really didn't go the way everyone at Upton Park had planned it, WRITES DAVE EVANS.

The in-form Hammers were supposed to trample all over fast-fading Boro and sweep to an emphatic victory, before claiming an easy home draw in the quarter-finals.

In the end, the fans were left grateful to still be in the hat, after a dismal performance of poor passing, and a litany of missed chances almost gifted the visitors that tricky trip to Goodison Park in round six.

"I think it was a deserved draw," said manager Gianfranco Zola after the game. "At the end of the day seeing how the game was going it was quite a relief. We had so many chances I was afraid that maybe we were not going to score."

A year ago, few fans could have imagined that losing Carlton Cole through injury would have such a devastating effect on the strikepower of the side.

But David Di Michele and Diego Tristan emphasised just how little strength in depth West Ham have in their armoury, after they both squandered chance after chance as if they were strangers to the round object rolling around the field.

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They were not the only problem however. West Ham badly missed the engine and the link-up play of Valon Behrami, and why Zola preferred Luis Boa Morte on the left to Savio, will remain a mystery.

But it was at the back where the biggest surprise came. Lucas Neill and the excellent Herita Ilunga had good matches, but the centre back pairing of James Collins and Matty Upson looked completely mystified by Afonso Alves pace and Stewart Downing's roving role.

They gave the ball away more often than at any time this season, lost their man frequently and were generally so shaky that at one point you half expected them to break into a rendition of 'Green Door'.

The Rob Green door was certainly left open by the defence as early as the second minute when Collins gave the ball straight to Downing and Adam Johnson drilled a shot just wide.

Didier Digard stormed forward to set-up Downing for another shot that beat Green but slipped wide, and by that time the crowd were already getting restless.

"To be honest, the first 15 minutes were one of the worst we have played recently," admitted Zola. "It was nowhere near our standards of recent weeks."

West Ham did pick up after that and for the next 10 minutes they laid siege to the Boro goal.

Ilunga's quick throws set up both Cole and Mark Noble for shots, the first deflected wide and the second comfortably saved by Brad Jones, while Jack Collison, in perhaps his best game for the club, skipped past two defenders and set up Noble in the box, only for the Boro keeper to palm it away.

Di Michele tried to acrobatically hook in Noble's next corner, only to miss his kick completely, before Collins stung the keeper's hands with a superb shot from the edge of the box.

Just when it seemed that Boro were on the rack, they broke up the other end and scored.

On 22 minutes, Gary O'Neil was allowed time and space to cross, but the danger should still have been averted. However, it went straight through both Upson and Collins and Downing gratefully headed home from close range.

Still Boro came forward and the crowd grew even more restless. Another O'Neil cross picked out Robert Huth who headed straight at Green, before Collins gifted another chance to Downing, only for the England man to fire wide.

By that time Cole had limped off with an ankle injury which he seemed to have for at least 10 minutes before the West Ham bench even noticed.

It gave Tristan the chance to get the bench splinters out of his backside and show what he could do, though by the end many fans were still none the wiser.

Collison missed a glorious chance at the far post after Boa Morte crossed for Noble, whose shot was deflected and then palmed away by Jones into the midfielder's path, while Di Michele then put Tristan in right on half time, but the Spaniard blasted woefully over.

Stratford's Olympic champion Chri-stine Ohuruogu was introduced to the crowd at half time and you could not help but think the team needed someone with her pace after the break.

Mind you the last time she was at Upton Park was for the home defeat by Bolton, so the signs were not good for a second-half revival.

Freddie Sears quickly replaced the injured Boa Morte in the second half, but despite now having three strikers on the pitch, things still did not run smoothly for the Hammers.

Indeed Boro three times went close to adding to their tally, as first Di Michele lost possession (again!) to allow the ball to be played up to Alves who forced a fine low save from Green.

Then Noble's pedestrian dribbling with the ball resulted in another loss of possession and another Alves shot expertly saved by the goalkeeper.

Downing's 20-yarder on 72 minutes saw Green diving low to his right again and grabbing the ball at the second attempt, while most of West Ham's efforts involved tight passing into the middle and the inevitable clearance.

Di Michele almost set up Tristan, but the ball would not run for the Spaniard, while on 74 minutes came the best chance of all. Collison found Ilunga on the left edge of the penalty area and he got to the by-line and pulled it back for Di Michele standing on the penalty spot, only for the Italian to horrible balloon the ball into the stand.

Just when you thought it wasn't going to be West Ham's day, they finally made the breakthrough. Substitute Savio swung in a free kick from the left, Collins missed the flick on and Ilunga stooped at the far post to nod past Jones and into the net.

"I don't think my team underestimated them," insisted Zola. "It's

just because it's been a strange week. I've had many players out for

international duties and these days it's always difficult to prepare properly.

"Boro were very well organised. They caused us a lot of problems. But

it's okay. It was a good lesson for us. We have had a lot of compliments, but now today we learn that if we want to keep that way we have to pick up our standards all the time," he said.

"I'm 100 per cent sure next week is going to be much better."

If they have to do without Behrami and Cole that may be an uphill task.