Nobody expected the Spanish interception!

THEY SAY that teams free from the pressure of the title race or relegation dogfight can play with a sense of freedom towards the end of the season. Villa and West Ham epitomised that on Saturday with a superb exhibition of attacking football that could ha

THEY SAY that teams free from the pressure of the title race or relegation dogfight can play with a sense of freedom towards the end of the season. Villa and West Ham epitomised that on Saturday with a superb exhibition of attacking football that could have ended 5-5! WRITES DAVE EVANS.

"It's a pity that there weren't many more goals because the game had everything," exclaimed West Ham boss Gianfranco Zola afterwards.

He was absolutely right. Despite the pedantry of referee Rob Styles, who angered Villa boss Martin O'Neill by forcing them to wear their third kit, and then put in a performance of indiscriminate incompetence, this was a real cracker.

And West Ham certainly played an important part. Still there was no Scott Parker, Radoslav Kovac and most importantly of all Carlton Cole, but the Hammers carved out chances left, right and centre and after equalising with five minutes to go, looked the team most likely to win it.


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Perhaps Matty Upson summed up the afternoon best: "We were pleased not to get beaten, but having said that and reflecting on the game, I felt we could have made a bit more of it if we had a bit more quality in front of goal today and finished off some chances."

O'Neill may well be saying the same about his team as they missed some glorious chances too, but West Ham have not created so many opportunities for weeks and if they had a goalscorer in form, then they could have buried Villa.

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They had a great chance as early as the second minute when the excellent Luis Boa Morte flicked the ball on to Junior Stanislas and the Villa defence opened up in front of him like the curtains at the London Palladium.

But as he bore down on goal, Brad Friedel came out and blocked his shot with his chest.

No matter, there were plenty more chances to come. Boa Morte and David Di Michele combined to set up Stanislas again on the left hand side, but he could not get a clean shot away, though something was also stirring at the other end.

First Gareth Barry nodded Nicky Shorey's cross inches wide and then a quick break saw both Upson and James Collins caught out of position, as the ball was worked out to James Milner on the right, and the winger crossed low for Emile Heskey to sweep it into the net.

There was a hint of offside, but Styles and his linesman were having none of it and the goal stood.

West Ham marched back. Stanislas found Boa Morte whose shot was deflected inches wide, before Tomkins set off on a storming run which saw him first slip the ball into Di Michele and then, when the Italian's shot had been saved by Friedel, the defender thumped the rebound inches over.

Collins limped off and West Ham reshuffled with Lucas Neill returning to right back, Tomkins going into the middle and Kieron Dyer coming on for a real test of his fitness with an hour to go.

The changes allowed Villa to take charge and Milner forced a good save from Green, before Ashley Young's cross just eluded Heskey, and the winger then grazed the outside of the post with a shot after his free kick had come back off the wall.

Mark Noble's horrendous back pass then allowed Heskey to poke past Green and on to the post, and with Di Michele and especially Diego Tristan offering little at the other end; West Ham fans might have been expecting a rout.

Noble's mistake though, seemed to wake the Hammers from their slumber. Boa Morte and Stanislas carved out another chance, but the ball just wouldn't fall for a shot, before Stanislas got away from Carlos Cuellar only to shoot inches over and then wasted a good cross from Herita Ilunga by heading badly wide.

Stiliyan Petrov shot inches wide with Green beaten, but there was still time for Di Michele to shoot straight at Friedel when a pass to Stanislas may have been a better option.

The crowd were breathless after a thrilling first half, but there was still plenty more to come after the break.

Villa started the second half the brighter as they looked for that killer second goal. O'Neill had contrived to negate the potency of Stanislas in the second half and that allowed them to throw more bodies forward.

Heskey was denied by a superb Green save on 47 minutes, before a quick break saw Ilunga clear only as far as Young, who cut inside and shot just wide.

But as the game went on, Villa became more anxious and West Ham became more daring. Savio replaced the tiring Stanislas and he should have done better on 75 minutes when Dyer's super ball to Tristan saw the forward too slow to get there, but the clearance fall to the little German who shot miles over the top.

With 10 minutes left there was an almighty scramble as Di Michele got into the box and saw his shot blocked, before Noble and then Boa Morte also saw shots stopped by a defender and the goalkeeper as West Ham pressed for a deserved equaliser.

Di Michele rather than Tristan was surprisingly replaced by Freddie Sears on 81 minutes, but it proved a masterstroke by Zola as within four minutes, West Ham were level.

Sears won the corner and Noble's kick was cleared as far as Dyer. The midfielder snatched at his shot and it was going badly wide before Tristan intercepted it with a deft header that gave Friedel no chance.

After that, West Ham poured forward and Noble's deflected shot almost caught out Friedel who tipped it over, while Savio shot inches wide, but the Hammers attacking policy almost cost them dear at the other end.

An aimless ball forward found John Carew battling with Tomkins as they raced into the box. The ball seemed to hit the defender's hand, but Styles was around 30 yards behind the incident and the linesman was the wrong side of it and, much to the anger of O'Neill, nothing was given.

"I think it would have been harsh," said Upson afterwards. "I'm not disputing the fact the ball might have touched his hand, but when you are in close quarters, the ball is bouncing up and it is jagged between the two of them, there is not much you can do about it.

"It was a sensible decision in the end, it was completely unintentional and there was a melee going on."

If only everyone was as sensible as Upson. O'Neill's x-ray vision might have picked out the handball, but it was virtually impossible for anyone else too, though West Ham fans must have had their hearts in their mouth when they looked at their old friend Styles.

"It was an exciting game and I believe that everyone can be satisfied with today's result - especially us!" said Zola.

"We can say that West Ham totally deserved a point and if we'd had won the game at the end, then nobody could have said anything."

He was right, but don't tell Martin O'Neill!

West Ham: Green, Tomkins, Ilunga, Collins (Dyer 33), Upson, Neill, Noble, Boa Morte, Stanislas (Savio 74), Di Michele (Sears 81), Tristan. Unused subs: Lastuvka, Lopez, Payne, Hines.

Attendance: 39,534. Referee: Rob Styles.

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