Saturday, 1st January 2011
Whether it was the pre-match New Year's hangovers or just a general sense of foreboding caused by the visitors' last result but there were few about predicting much for this one. Me? I was still reeling from the vision on the Jools Holland show of the Dambusters March played on, er, kittens, by the bloke that used to play keyboards in a Genesis tribute band once fronted by the Internet Hammers ex-keeper. I think the word surreal just about sums it up.
Team news was that changes were afoot once more. Ilunga's continued injury problems meant that he was, once more, available for selection. Gabbidon came back in to replace. On the other side, Ben-Haim came in to replace Faubert whilst Tomkins, who was apparently seen hobbling away from the Boleyn in midweek, had recovered sufficiently from his treatment at the hands of Cahill to start alongside Upson. In midfield, Stanislas returned whilst it was Obinna's turn to sit on the sidelines up front, leaving us with a starting XI of Green, Ben-Haim, Gabbidon, Upson, Tomkins, Sears, Parker, Kovac, Stanislas, Piquionne, Cole.
The first half wasn't the most inspiring of 45's. That doesn't mean it was without incident, merely that it was, overall, a reflection of the teams' relative positions and the importance of the match in hand. Chances? Well ours were the clearer though Wolves were not without the odd spell of pressure usually resulting from corners. Cole had to be alert to block an Ebanks-Blake effort after one such minor post-corner scramble.
Cole was having an odd game. One moment he'd be holding the ball up and laying it off with an inch perfect ball to a colleague. Other times he looked like he'd have trouble trapping the proverbial bag of cement. It was Cole who ought to have put us in front. Parker picked up the ball in midfield and played the ball inside Elokobi who, nevertheless, managed to get a partial touch on the ball. Cole was still clean through but failed to adjust for the defender's touch and curled his shot wide. Cole probably had enough time to steady himself and make sure but didn't which was infuriating as his run and Parker's through ball deserved better.
Sears was the other one who might have troubled the scoreboard in the first half. A Green goal kick was nodded on to Piquionne by Cole. Piquionne in turn brought in Sears who was in acres on the right. Sears' cross was deflected by Elokobi and Piquionne got a head to the resulting loose ball. Sears had continued his run into the box and hit a low drive – which he did very well to keep down. The shot beat Hennessy in goal but Stearman was on the line to effect a fine clearance. Stanislas rescued the clearance and played the ball in to Sears' feet. Sears turned the defender but his second shot was straight at the 'keeper.
The near miss seemed to wake the game up a bit and Sears was having a busy time of it. Bringing the ball out from defence he pushed a neat and precise ball in towards Piquionne who held it up and played the ball into the path of Parker. Unusually for the midfielder his first touch was, perhaps, a little too strong and Stearman was able to cut off what had been a very promising move. Sears and Piquionne combined once more on the right and Piquionne's low ball into the box looked dangerous again until Stearman once more intercepted. Cole found a little bit of space from the resulting throw but could only shoot over on the turn. The half effectively ended with a wildly optimistic hoof over the bar from Milijas and a free-kick for handball being given against Cole that had “easy way out” written all over it as the defender pulled the striker's shirt halfway up his back.
Well if we'd had the better of the chances in the first half we had to weather a bit of, well not so much a storm, more a spell of inclement weather in the early part of the second half. Hunt won a low header and fed Ebanks-Blake on the left hand side of the box. The striker's shot was probably going to trouble the corner flag but Upson blocked it for a corner before that theory could be tested. The resulting corner saw a deflection onto Cole's head bring out a save from Green low down at the near post. The ball came back to Milijas who got the better of Piquionne to cross for Berra, whose header was well saved again by Green. Eventually the ball was block tackled by Elokobi and Green sensibly gave his team mates a breather by allowing it to run out for a goal kick.
Jarvis then went forward and fed Ward, who had scored their winner at Anfield in midweek. Ward's shot from the edge of the box had power but Green got behind it and ref Probert handily got in the way to prevent a follow up effort from the visitors. The ball eventually ended up on the right hand side where Zubar crossed for Milijas to head over.
We settled down a bit after this spell and the right hand side started to look promising. Piquionne's cross was nodded out and Parker’s attempted lob was a clever idea that failed to bear fruit. Then came the first goal – and the right hand side was, once more the source.
With 50 played, Ben-Haim played the ball long down the line to Piquionne who, in turn, played a great-looking ball into the box. Cole came in and sold Zubar a magnificent dummy and the ball went in off the hapless defender. And if you believe that you'll believe anything! In fact Cole had a tap in begging to be dispatched but made a horrible mess of it and I suspect Zubar's intervention was about the only thing that prevented Cole from getting some horrendous stick from the crowd. As goals go, it was as bizarre as watching the former keyboard player from a Genesis tribute band playing the Dambusters March on kittens I suppose. Cole at least had the good grace to look suitably embarrassed.
We were then treated to the first caution of the afternoon when a promising break from Parker came to a juddering end at the arrival of Stearman. Though the defender may have (just) got the ball the challenge was a bit reckless and it was the follow through on the midfielder that was probably responsible for the slightly harsh yellow.
On the hour the right hand side started to pay dividends again as Piquionne turned the ball round the corner into space for Cole, whose cross was blocked for a corner. As the corner was delivered by parker, Cole was thrown to the floor by a defender, something that was seen but not given by the ref. Ignoring the shenanigans, Upson came from deep to send a powerful header goalwards only to see Hennessy tip the ball onto the bar, grabbing the loose ball at the second attempt.
We made our first change on 68 minutes, Mark Noble making a welcome return in place of the ineffectual Stanislas. This prompted a slight change in formation with Piquionne dropping back to make a 4-5-1 or perhaps a 4-4-1-1, leaving Cole as the sole out and out striker.
We still had a spot of defending to do of course. On 70 minutes Milijas overran the ball and went down under minimal contact from Kovac, more in hope than expectation of a free-kick. The ref bought it however and the result was a free-kick in a dangerous looking position on the corner of the box. Parker (who else) blocked the initial shot. Milijas put the ball back into the box but Green turned it over. The visitors came closer still to levelling the score on 76 minutes. Tomkins played a long clearance back to Green whose own clearance was scuffed. Upson was caught napping by Foley who played Fletcher in on the right. Fletcher's cross found Ebanks-Blake who hit his header onto the bar. Kovac completed the clearance.
Having survived that scare we pressed forward in an attempt to double the lead. Piquionne did well to win the ball on the left and his curled effort from the edge of the box wasn't that far off-target, with the keeper looking beaten but we didn't have long to wait for the second. A Wolves attack broke down with Tomkins clearing, the ball falling to Noble who brought the ball out feeding Parker. Sears made a superb run through the middle but Parker's attempted through ball unluckily caught the back of an opponent's heel. Undeterred, parker cleverly cushioned the rebound into the path of Ben-Haim who had joined the attack in those inviting spaces on the right. Ben-Haim brought the ball forward before pulling the ball back to the penalty spot where Sears' late run was perfectly timed for him to bury a first time shot past Hennessy. If the first goal had been ridiculous the second was sublime and it was just reward for Sears who has been revelling in his midfield role since his return from loan. Kovac picked up a yellow for stopping off on the touchline for a quick drink in the aftermath of the goal celebrations, his detour delaying the restart by approximately one tenth of the time it took the ref to book him for the offence.
Wolves threw on Bent for Milijas with five minutes left to play. This left them with three up front comprising Ebanks-Blake, Fletcher and Bent, prompting us to wonder, in true Spinal Tap style, how much more journeyman a front three could be. (The correct answer being of course “none – none more journeyman”).
We survived the remaining time without too much worry – Ben-Haim did well to cut out a low cross but that was it as we played keep-ball for a minute or two and the three points were ours.
So a nice 100% record this year and the tightness of the league at present saw us leap five places with a single bound (though we slipped back one after Sunday's games). We've had a spot of luck over the festive period to be sure – Etuhu's deflection, Hibbert's own goal and Cole's er, dummy, all contributed to the seven out of nine over the last three matches. However, it has to be said we hadn't exactly been overburdened with good fortune in the season so far – just look at Clattenburg's LSD hallucination that disallowed what would have been a winner at Molineux for example. So I for one am going to `enjoy the headiness of 16th position with a hope that we can bring in decent players during the window (rather than the past it has-beens and never-weres that we've seen in recent seasons). Meanwhile has anyone seen my oxygen mask?
Note to readers: No kittens were harmed in the preparation of this match report.
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Three good saves took the headlines though he'd have been disappointed had any of them beaten him.
Decent shift at right back where he concentrated on the defensive side of things first but still found time to get forward and use the space afforded to him by the opposition.
Ok, but there were a few occasions when he got forward where he delayed getting the ball over when we had players in the box.
About a year ago he had a complete nightmare against these opponents. His confidence appeared shot and he was left out of the team. In recent weeks he's shown his true colours.
Good battling performance and was unlucky not to score when he hit the bar.
I suggest that his land-line should be disconnected and all mobile 'phones confiscated from the Parker household lest the inevitable poaching turns his head during the forthcoming transfer window. Another excellent stint at the heart of the side.
Another decent run out from the midfielder who finally seems to have worked out that he is actually allowed to about a bit. He's not overdoing it, mind but every little helps.
Disappointing from the youngster who showed a reluctance to take on his opponent – perhaps a video of Sears' performance might show him the way.
Just about got my MOTM for this one though Tomkins pushed him close. We all want him to do well and I suppose it's possible that might add a spot of extra pressure on the lad. However, since his return he's brought pace and energy to the right side of midfield and the goal will do him a power of good.
We saw him at his best and his worst all in the same match. Some moments of beautiful control were contrasted against some daft moments that left you wondering if that was the same player who had just brought the ball down and laid it off so well. Still that superb dummy (chortle) will live on in the mind for a bit.
Sometimes it looked as if he and Cole had been playing together for a lifetime. Often it didn't. Some good link-up play but only once did he look like scoring.
(Replaced Stanislas, 69 mins) A welcome return. Eased himself back for 20 minutes though he did get involved in the build up for the second.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Luis Boa Morte
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Referee: Lee Probert.
Man of the Match: Fred Sears.
West Ham United
Robert Green, Tal Ben-Haim, Danny Gabbidon, James Tomkins, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Radoslav Kovac, Junior Stanislas, Fred Sears, Carlton Cole, Frederic Piquionne.
Goals: Ronald Zubar og 51 Fred Sears 79 .
Booked: Radoslav Kovac 80 .
Sent off: None.
Hennessey, Foley, Stearman, Berra, Elokobi, Zubar, Jarvis, Stephen Ward, Milijas, Hunt, Ebanks-Blake .
Substitutes: Edwards (Elokobi 75), Fletcher (Hunt 75), Bent (Milijas 87).
Subs not used: Jones, Mujangi Bia, Hahnemann, Batth.
Booked: Stearman (56).
Sent Off: None.