Potteries defeat is a pain in the grass

Stoke City 2 West Ham United 1 THE grass is certainly longer at Stoke but it might soon be greener if West Ham carry on like this for too much longer, writes KIRK BLOWS. Make no mistake; the Hammers are certainly capable of getting relegated unless Gianf

Stoke City 2 West Ham United 1

THE grass is certainly longer at Stoke but it might soon be greener if West Ham carry on like this for too much longer, writes KIRK BLOWS.

Make no mistake; the Hammers are certainly capable of getting relegated unless Gianfranco Zola finds a system to get the best out of his players - an issue that rival boss Tony Pulis seemingly has no worries with at the moment.

The Potters might not be pretty but they're effective, while Zola's struggling side is currently the total opposite - pretty ineffective.

James Beattie's two goals - one from the penalty spot - ensured that West Ham have yet to win a league fixture since the opening day of the season at Wolves.

That miserable run has seen them collect a mere two points from the last seven games and that's relegation form in anyone's book.

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And with a visit from high-flying Arsenal on Sunday followed by a tough trip to in-form Sunderland the following weekend, it's difficult to see the Hammers climbing out of the bottom two places until November at the very earliest.

Yet Zola insists he is encouraged by his players' efforts and believes the good fortune - which certainly deserted his side at a noisy Britannia Stadium - will soon turn in West Ham's favour.

"It's frustrating for us to come away with no points because when Stoke scored the second goal it looked like we were going to win the game," he said.

"It's the same as the situation we had last season. Right now we pay for every little mistake that we make. Things are not going our way but the team is determined to improve.

"It's tough for me to have a go at the players as I think they gave everything. The way they played makes me feel that the corner is very close."

Zola had been forced to make at least one change from the side that started against Fulham a fortnight earlier, with Scott Parker's booking in that 2-2 draw earning him a suspension which saw Radoslav Kovac return to the midfield in a defensive role.

Valon Behrami and Jack Collison also came back into the starting line-up following minor injury problems as Luis Jimenez and Zavon Hines dropped to the bench.

And with Alessandro Diamanti initially offering better support to Carlton Cole, it seemed that calls for Zola to revert to the 4-4-2 system that served the Hammers so well in the second half of last season had finally been listened to.

Mark Noble was also deployed in an advanced position as he spearheaded what appeared to be a midfield diamond behind the front two.

But Diamanti, sporting a bizarre new hairstyle with the sides of his head shaved, once again displayed a tendency to drop deep and leave Cole a little isolated as the Hammers twice fought to get back into the game.

Hopes that West Ham could stage a repeat of last season's win at Stoke in May suffered an early blow when Julien Faubert was adjudged to have clipped Matthew Etherington as the former Hammer surged into the penalty box.

Replays suggested there had been little contact by Faubert, who was booked for his efforts, but it was no surprise that referee Martin Atkinson - who didn't enjoy the best of games - pointed to the spot.

And Beattie left Hammers goalkeeper Robert Green with no chance when he blasted the ball into the top left-hand corner of the net to give the home side an 11th-minute lead.

If it was a bad day for Green, it was an even worse one for England team-mate Matthew Upson, who was soon in the wars when a high kick by defender Ryan Shawcross left him with a bloodied face and needing early treatment.

With the pitch once again tailored to suit the home side's direct style of play in the form of the longest grass in the Premier League, it wasn't easy for the Hammers to impose their traditional passing game.

Not surprisingly, Stoke were no shrinking violets when it came to the more physical aspects of the game and Salif Diao and Shawcross were both booked for taking out Diamanti in the first half.

The Italian forward enjoyed little joy with his early efforts at goal, firing well over with an ambitious 30-yard shot and curling a free-kick straight into the arms of goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen.

Yet West Ham shocked the home faithful by hauling themselves level with 34 minutes on the clock.

Noble's corner left Sorensen flapping at air and a bloodied and bruised Upson was left unmarked to head home his second goal of the campaign.

Beattie and Shawcross both wasted chances to restore their side's advantage in the early part of the second period but the Hammers were beginning to look increasingly comfortable as the half developed, despite failing to seriously trouble Sorensen.

Diamanti saw two shots safely held by the keeper while Cole was denied by a great lunge from the impressive Shawcross just as he was about to pull the trigger.

Just a minute later, however, West Ham found themselves behind for a second time with several players at fault.

Skipper Upson was turned by Ricardo Fuller out wide and when Green could only parry the Stoke striker's cross-shot, Beattie beat Faubert to the rebound and bundled the ball home.

To rub salt into West Ham's wounds - particularly their skipper's - Upson then found himself clumped by rival defender Robert Huth as players jostled in the Stoke box ahead of a free-kick.

With his captain requiring facial treatment for a second time, Zola was left wondering what might have been had Huth been deservedly red-carded and Stoke reduced to 10 men for the final 18 minutes.

"I can only assume the referee didn't see the incident," said the bemused Hammers boss.

Farcically, Cole was then booked for a lame challenge on Sorensen while substitute Hines was also yellow-carded as the visitors battled in vain to save the game.

But it was Stoke who looked the more likely to score late on, with Etherington, Fuller and substitute Glenn Whelan all worrying the West Ham goal before the final whistle.

The major worries, however, belong to Zola as he prepares his team for the visit of Arsenal on Sunday. It could be painful.

West Ham: Green, Faubert, Ilunga, Tomkins, Upson, Behrami, Kovac (Stanislas 83), Collison (Franco 89), Noble, Diamanti (Hines 78), Cole. Unused subs: Kurucz, Jimenez, Spector, Da Costa.

Att: 27,026. Referee: Martin Atkinson (5).

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