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Championship
Tuesday, 14th February 2012

West Ham United 1
Southampton 1

by James May


What more could you want on a Valentineís night? An enthralling ninety minutes and an electric atmosphere under the Upton Park lights, spent with the true love of our lives, West Ham United. The only thing missing was the three points.

From the first whistle to the last, it was a riveting, fiery affair in the biggest game of both ours and Southamptonís season. And at the end of the day, after once again playing with ten men for the vast majority of the game, we have to view this result against our biggest promotion rivals as a point gained rather than two dropped.

It was the best atmosphere I have witnessed at Upton Park in a long time, ironically helped by the early sending off of Matt Taylor and the countless number of decision that referee Lee Probert gave against the hammers. Once again though, like the Millwall game last week, the early dismissal appeared to galvanise the side and it was another brave and spirited performance against a strong Southampton team.

Following the postponement of our game at Peterborough last Saturday we went into this encounter fresh and full of confidence. With the exception of the nightmare at Ipswich, we had won four of our last five and won four on the bounce at home. The performance and passion we showed last time out against Millwall was also sure to boost confidence amongst the players and fans. However we knew this never going to be a walkover and a defeat would see the Saints replace us at the top of the Championship tree.

As much as many of the West Ham faithful would have liked Big Sam to go with two up front, I donít think there was any surprise that he once again persisted with Carlton Cole up top on his own. In fairness to Allardyce, although it maybe not the most positive of moves, we have now scored in our last nine Championship games, playing with one up top in most of these.

Once again it was disappointing, as the teams were announced, to realise that Diop had not recovered from his hamstring strain. It meant we were again without our driving force and big presence holding in the midfield. For me Diop is a big loss. It meant James Tomkins would fill the defensive midfield role after growing in that position against Millwall. As much as I would like to see Tomkins, who I feel is an exceptional centre back, play in his favoured position, with the form of Reid and Faye being so good, it is something that doesnít seem to be affecting us too much.

Allardyce went with Green in goal, a back four of OíBrien, Faye, Reid and Taylor and a midfield three of Tomkins, Noble and Collison. Vaz Te made his first start for the side on the wing alongside Faubert with Cole up top. The decision to play Taylor at left back I thought was fair with McCartney apparently having a tight hamstring and Taylor with a natural left foot and is no stranger to that position, it was an obvious choice. With Kevin Nolan suspended, I was pleased to see Allardyce move Collison central, somewhere I feel he is much more effective. It meant he could bring in Vaz Te and with him and Faubert running the channels we were not short of pace down the flanks.

As soon as I entered the ground there was a real buzz around the place and a special atmosphere that you only really experience under the lights of Upton Park. And within just fifty seconds into of the game it was so nearly a dream start for the Hammers.

Following a real mix up from the two Saints centre backís, Vaz Te nipped in and struck the ball beautifully from the edge of the area, only for his strike to be brilliantly saved by Kelvin Davis. It was nice to see us out of the block so quickly, something which hasnít really happened enough this season.

The first ten minutes were extremely lively and the game was being played at a tremendously quick pace, with West Ham well on top in the early exchanges. Seven minutes in and Reid almost scored his second in as many games. The Kiwi was first to react from a loose ball in the Southampton area but unfortunately he blazed over on the turn.

There were huge penalty claims from West Ham on the quarter of an hour mark after Tomkins headed another Noble cross against what looked like a Southampton hand. From where I was I couldnít tell if it had hit a hand, but if the reaction of Tomkins and Faye was anything to go by, it may well have done.

For all of Southamptonís neat passing and movement in the first 15 minutes, they had produced next to nothing with a speculative header from their hitman Rickie Lambert going comfortably wide being their best effort.

It was in the 18th minute of the game, when the gameís major talking point occurred. Initially after a clever quick free kick from Taylor, Noble found himself in the penalty area and after some neat footwork was brought down by Billy Sharp. Lee Probert had no hesitation in pointing to the spot but the drama didnít finish there.

Sharp, who we had been strongly linked with signing for us this season, was incensed by Noble and clearly in his eyes felt it was a dive. After giving Noble a torrent of abuse, Matty Taylor marched over and seemed to shove Sharp in the chest. Disappointingly but almost inevitably in this day and age, Sharp went down as if he had been shot and Probert couldnít get his red card out quick enough.

Down to ten men before the twenty minute mark for the second time in two games, we certainly donít make things easy for us.

As poor and over dramatic Sharpís reaction was it was silly from Taylor to firstly get involved and secondly raise his hands to an opponent. In this day and age if you do that you are simply asking for trouble. Given that we had just won a penalty made it even more frustrating because at 1-0 and with 11 men on the pitch, we would have been well on top.

It took about four minutes for all the drama to fizzle out so that the ice cool Noble could step up from the spot. The captain for the night, who had converted three penalties in our last four games, never looked in doubt again as he sent Davis the wrong way and sent the Hammers fans into delirium.

It was a mad few minutes but one thing in had certainly done was turn the already high decibel level inside the Boleyn ground up a few notches. Jack Collison was unfortunately sacrificed by Allardyce for George McCartney as, like the Millwall game, we reverted to a 4-4-1 formation. I felt the decision to take off Collison was probably the correct one as it still meant we had width and pace out wide to cause Southampton problems. After all we couldnít just sit back for 70 minutes.

For the next ten minutes or so we continued to control the game despite the Saints having the one man advantage. The game remained heated throughout as Cole was booked for an altercation with Keeper Davis. The ref was certainly not making any friends with the West Ham faithful but as mentioned itís moments like these, where the ref seems to be given you absolutely nothing, that brings the players and fans together.

It wasnít until after the half hour mark when they produced their first real meaningful chance, but what a chance it was. After Green could only parry a powerful long range Lambert drive into the path of Sharp, you thought the striker couldnít miss. However, somehow his shot was brilliantly kept out from Green to retain our slender lead.

From then until half time Southampton got on top and the whistle to signal the end of the half couldnít have come quicker. Lambert had a 25 yard free kick fly inches wide, before his low curling effort was superbly kept out by the fingertips of Green.

Probert eventually blew to and end and eventful and thrilling first half. The performance, work rate and commitment from the ten West Ham men out there was admirable but we knew it had to continue if we were going to hold on for a precious three points.

HALF TIME: WEST HAM UNITED 1 SOUTHAMPTON 0


Big Sam stuck with the same system for the second half but it was obvious to notice from early on that our midfield was beginning to sit much deeper. You can understand this in terms of holding on to a lead but Cole was just becoming more and more isolated and the ball was just coming straight back into our danger area.

Our defensive unit deserve an awful lot of credit. For the first 15 minutes of the second half we restricted Southampton to long range efforts and speculative crosses which Reid and Faye dealt with superbly. We came closest to doubling our lead when Faubert, who didnít stop running all night, nicked in after another Southampton defensive mix up. Unfortunately the Frenchman, after getting past the keeper, couldnít adjust his feet quick enough and failed to put it in from a very tight angle.

We caught our first glimpse of Nicky Maynard in the 65th minute when he replaced Cole who was visibly shattered after running his socks off up there on his own. The first signs were encouraging with a couple of neat touches and it looks like he has a real good turn of pace. However it was hard for Maynard as he was just so isolated up front.

As we entered the last 25 minutes or so, the pressure on the West Ham goal was piled on and it was just the case of can we hold out. Lambert flicked the ball dangerously at the front post from a corner for the ball fortunately to be cleared by McCartney at the back stick from just a yard out. The impressive Lallana then blazed just over from 20 yards out. Nervous would have been an understatement at this point.

The substitution of Gary OíNeil on Vaz Te, who had an encouraging debut given the circumstances, did little to stem the constant waves of attack from the away side. And finally West Hamís excellent defensive display and clean sheet was broken from a Saints free kick ten yards inside our half. Rickie Lambert rose highest at the back post to nod back to Jos Hooiveld who poked it past the helpless Green from five yards out. It was a goal you could see coming after the pressure they had us under but was such a shame that we could not hold out for the final 15 minutes after defending so resolutely.

From then on, I for one feared the worst. Understandably we had plenty of tired legs out there and they had the momentum and the one man advantage on their side. However much like the Millwall game, we responded excellently and showed fantastic team spirit. Noble was outstanding all game and inspirational to his team mates and the crowd. Not only was his work rate incredible but his distribution, especially when under pressure was real quality.

In truth, after their equaliser Southampton looked like they took their foot off the gas slightly and we so nearly could have won it late on through Maynard. Faubert once again battled brilliantly and after he blocked a Saints defenders clearance, Nicky Maynard one the battle with his marker only for his well hit strike to be tipped over by Davis.

There were some very nervy moments late on but in terms of chances, we restricted them to nothing of note. Finally Probert, who had a very poor game in my opinion, blew the final whistle in a pulsating and dramatic game.

It was another game in which we had shot ourselves in the foot with an early dismissal but once again showed exceptional character and commitment against one of the best sides in the league. I canít help but feel with 11 men for 90 minutes, we could have won that game quite comfortably.

Despite conceding the equaliser with just 15 minutes to go, I think we have got to be happy with the point considering the Taylor red card after just 18 minutes. Every player out there in the claret and blue put in a fantastic shift for the team and you can see that there is certainly a real togetherness within the side right now, which is crucial going into the final 16 games. Hopefully soon we can play a whole game with eleven men on the pitch, and then we really could be a force to be reckoned with.

Signs since the Ipswich defeat have been very encouraging and the fact remains, we are still top of the league. Letís keep it up.



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Player Ratings

Robert Green
A brilliant double save and a great fingertip save from Lambert in the first half. Commanding in the air once again, didnít put a foot wrong.


Joey O Brien
Defensively sound. Tried to offer attacking option down the right but his crossing was rather wayward.


Matt Taylor
Looked comfortable and a good attacking option for the 18 minutes he was on the pitch. Needless sending off especially after we had just won a penalty. Yes Sharp went down easily, but Taylor shouldnít have given the ref an option to pull the red card out.


Winston Reid
Another superb performance from the Kiwi. Looked generally untroubled against a very strong Southampton frontline.


Abdoulaye Faye
Very good, especially after being on a booking for the entire second half. Loses nothing in the air and a leader at the back.


Mark Noble
Captain fantastic. Inspirational throughout and simply didnít stop for breath. Excellent distribution, a few crucial tackles in the middle of the park and of course another superb penalty. MOTM.


James Tomkins
Another solid and composed display given he is being played out of position. Still looks a little unsure of his role but tidy enough on the ball and always good defensively.


Jack Collison
The unfortunate man to make way after Taylorís sending off. Saw very little of the ball before that.


Ricardo Vaz Te
Impressive first start given the situation. Looked lively on the ball and tries to make things happen. Direct and pacey. Unfortunately had to defend more than we all would have liked after the red card.


Julien Faubert
Another fully committed and battling performance. Didnít stop running and produced some good stuff down the right in the first half. Playing his best he ever has for West Ham over the last few weeks.


Carlton Cole
Another almost impossible task up front on his own after the sending off. However battled his heart out and caused the Southampton backline a number of problems.


Substitutes


George McCartney
(Replaced Collison, 21)
Came on early and did an excellent job defensively and on a few occasions helped the attacking cause. Reliable as always.


Nicky Maynard
(Replaced Cole, 65)
Was a tricky debut when he was introduced. Completely isolated up top. Looks lively and so nearly won it late on.


Gary O Neil
(Replaced Vaz Te, 71)
Got about the pitch well in the final twenty minutes and was the fresh legs we needed to make sure we saw out a draw.


Henri Lansbury
Did not play.


Sam Baldock
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: Lee Probert.

Attendance: 32,875.

Man of the Match: Mark Noble.

West Ham United

Robert Green, Joey O Brien, Matt Taylor, Winston Reid, Abdoulaye Faye, Mark Noble, James Tomkins, Jack Collison, Ricardo Vaz Te, Julien Faubert, Carlton Cole.

Goals: Mark Noble 21                  .

Booked: Carlton Cole 29 Abdoulaye Faye 41        .

Sent Off: Matt Taylor 18    .

Southampton

Kelvin Davis, Frazer Richardson, Jos Hooiveld, Jose Fonte, Daniel Fox, Guly Do Prado, Jack Cork, Morgan Schneiderlin, Adam Lallana, Richard Lambert, Billy Sharp.

Substitutes: Jason Puncheon (Guly Do Prado 55), David Connolly (Frazer Richardson 80), Dean Hammond (Billy Sharp 83).

Subs not used: Aaron Martin, Tadanari Lee.

Goals: Jos Hooiveld (75).

Booked: Billy Sharp (19), Adam Lallana (45), Jack Cork (53), Jose Fonte (89).

Sent Off: None.

 
James May's Man of the Match: Mark Noble


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