The defence deserves a real Delap of honour

Stoke City 0 West Ham Utd 1 JUST WHEN you thought West Ham s promising season was finally coming to an end, Gianfranco Zola s boys put in the sort of battling display that could earn them a place in the Europa League next season, writes DAVE EVANS. Only E

Stoke City 0 West Ham Utd 1

JUST WHEN you thought West Ham's promising season was finally coming to an end, Gianfranco Zola's boys put in the sort of battling display that could earn them a place in the Europa League next season, writes DAVE EVANS.

Only Everton, Manchester United and Chelsea had won at the high-decibel Britannia Stadium this season, but Diego Tristan's super first-half strike added the Hammers to that illustrious triumvirate and few would say that they didn't earn it.

There were moments of controversy at both ends, but in the end this game was won by a moment of sublime skill from an unlikely source.

Abdoulaye Faye fouled the tricky David Di Michele on the edge of the box, and with everyone expecting Mark Noble to hit the free kick, it was Spanish striker Tristan who stepped up and whipped the ball into the top corner with 33 minutes gone.

It must have been a surprise to everyone in the ground, including Tristan himself, but manager Zola was delighted that the Spaniard had proved a lot of people wrong in scoring his third goal of the season.

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"That's the good thing about football," he said. "You can always be proved wrong at any moment. Diego Tristan has got quality. He also has a lot of strength of mind, and so I can rely on him to produce something special."

He also is playing for a new contract for next season, but that aside, this was a very different Tristan to the one we have been so frustrated by for much of the season - he even looks match fit at last.

Radoslav Kovac was drafted into the starting line-up in place of hamstring victim Kieron Dyer, and though he did put his team-mates under pressure at times with ill-conceived passes, he added a stability to the midfield which they needed against a big, powerful and direct Stoke City side.

With a narrow pitch, and very long grass, it was apparent that the surface would play to the Potters' strengths and they looked like making the most of it in the opening half hour as Rory Delap's long throws caused panic.

From one Delap launch, Green went up to collect, only to be challenged by Ricardo Fuller, who bundled the ball over the line.

However, he was penalised for a foul on the goalkeeper and it looked a fair decision, despite the anger of the Stoke faithful.

Minutes later it was West Ham's turn to be angry. Luis Boa Morte crossed for Tristan, whose flick fell into the path of Di Michele, only for the referee to rule it out for handball by the Spaniard.

"The first disallowed goal was a challenge on Robert Green, which I think was evident to everybody," explained Zola. "The second one, maybe was a handball by Diego Tristan, but to be honest I haven't seen it.

"I can't really comment, but we can say one each!"

Stoke's fury was compounded by Tristan's superb strike, and for the next 10 minutes, West Ham threatened to take the game completely away from the home side.

A lovely run by Junior Stanislas saw him burst into the box before cleverly setting up Di Michele with a back-heel, only for the Italian to drill a shot inches over, and then another excellent passing move ended with Tristan looking for a room for another shot, but being denied by a block from a Stoke defender.

Fuller latched on to Matty Etherington's pass only for Green to save bravely at his feet, while the half ended with two moments of controversy.

First, Boa Morte went in hard and unfairly on Delap and was rightly booked, but the Stoke man's kick of retaliation on the Portuguese winger would have resulted in a red card 99 times out of a hundred - he got away with a yellow.

Then Liam Lawrence joined his team-mate in the book after his effort to win a penalty by deliberately tripping over Kovac's heel was spotted by the referee.

Stoke were livid and no doubt their boss Tony Pulis utilised that anger to stir his team up for the second half. It worked as the Potters proved an even sterner test after the break.

Delap, who should have been having an early bath, lobbed another throw into the box, leading to appeals for a penalty when Stanislas blocked it with what looked like a chest more than anything, before a corner was met by the late-arriving Faye's head, only for Noble to head coolly off the line.

West Ham were content or maybe forced to play on the break, but they did have their moments.

Boa Morte found the overlapping Lucas Neill, who stormed into the box to pull the ball back, and when it fell to Stanislas, he should have done better than blast over.

But it was at the other end where the real drama was happening. A series of corners kept West Ham under the cosh and from one, both Kovac and Matty Upson lost control of the ball, forcing Green to once more save at the feet of a striker, this time Seyi Olofinjana.

In injury time, Tristan should have made sure of the points when he rolled past his marker to run in on goal, but his audacious chip slipped harmlessly wide of the far post.

And West Ham were almost made to pay for that miss, when Fuller carved out one final chance, only to hook the ball over the top courtesy of a slight, but vital deflection.

"It was a difficult one, but it was a very good win and I'm really, really delighted," said Zola after the game.

"We knew that we would have to be brave. I believe in the first half we played some very good stuff football-wise and the goal was an example of that.

"In the second half we knew they'd try to come back strongly, but we were prepared and the resilience of the team and willingness not to concede anything, is something I keep praising - the players have been amazing."

They have, not least Tristan in the last couple of games. Sir Geoff Hurst was introduced and lauded by both sets of supporters at half time, and though the Spaniard will never in the same class as the World Cup winning hero, this manager seems to be able to bring out the best in him.

With Carlton Cole on the way back, and Jack Collison already returned to the fold, the likes of Tristan and Boa Morte may have to make way. But they can do it with the knowledge that they have played their part in West Ham's push for Europe and there would have been few people, including this reporter, who could have predicted that.

West Ham: Green, Neill, Ilunga, Tomkins, Upson, Kovac, Noble (Lopez 87), Boa Morte (Collison 82), Stanislas, Di Michele (Sears 89), Tristan. Unused subs: Lastuvka, Spector, Payne, Hines.

Attendance: 27,500. Referee: Peter Walton.