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Premier League
Saturday, 18th August 2012

West Ham United 1
Aston Villa 0

by Gordon Thrower


First game of the season. Three points. A few Olympic medals. What’s not to like?

The pre-season excitement has been on a bit of a slow-burner in these parts over the past few weeks. Usually the fixtures come out and the sense of anticipation in Gnome Towers builds up to unbearable levels. However, the focus on the Olympics up the road meant that, for me at least, football was a bit down the pecking order in life’s priorities.

Until Saturday morning when I was like a ten-year old again. It is probably just as well that they don’t have drivers on the DLR. I’d probably have been pestering them with the time-honoured “are we there yet” call every few seconds.

Team news was a bit late in arriving in the press room, presumably due to the extra time required to print the word Jaaskelainen on the team sheet. Of the new signings two, Collins & Diame made the starting line-up. Or three if you count McCartney. Maiga and Diarra were on the freshly expanded bench, alongside Tomkins leaving us with a starting XI of JJ, Demel, McCartney, Reid, Collins, Diame, Noble, Nolan, Taylor, Cole, Vaz Te.

Did I mention it was hot? I mean sweltering. The official temperature for the area was pushing 90. On the pitch, particularly on the major part that wasn’t in the shade, it must have been close to three figures. Which goes some way to explaining why the first 45 minutes weren’t exactly the most scintillating we’re likely to see this season.

For the first half hour Villa saw a lot of the ball. Or, to be more accurate, their back four and Stephen Ireland saw a lot of the ball. “We’re Aston Villa, we’re passing the ball” sang the otherwise quiet visiting support, seemingly under the misapprehension that they were watching Barcelona or Spain. The difference is Barcelona or Spain usually remember to go forward occasionally. Tellingly, the ballboys touched the ball more than spearhead Darren Bent. Or JJ for that matter.

Chances at either end were few and far between, though the often illegal attention paid by the Villa defence to Carlton Cole always meant that something might be a possibility from a set piece. Vlaar seemed particularly keen to help Carlton cope with the heat by removing his shirt for him at every opportunity.

Or, possibly, Vlaar was desperately trying to change out of his own hideous fluorescent lime-green change kit inflicted on Villa supporters this season, presumably as the result of someone losing a bet. Think of one of those highlighter pens that seem to breed in stationery cupboards in a shade so bright that it constitutes a danger to air traffic. No wonder Ginge left – my style consultants advise me that what’s left of his hair and that shade of green simply do not mix.

Following one particularly unsubtle attempt by Vlaar to separate Cole from his kit, Noble touched the resulting free-kick to Nolan who caught the ball sweetly. The shot wasn’t far wide though Given looked to have the effort covered.

We took the lead with five minutes of the half remaining. A burst through midfield from the impressive Mo Diame was halted abruptly by a crude intervention from Ciartan Clarke. The foul earned the Villa defender a yellow card, having been given the benefit of the doubt by Deane following an earlier late challenge on Vaz Te.

Noble clipped the ball goalwards and Collins challenged with two defenders with the ball flicking through to Vaz Te. The offside flag went up instantly. Vaz Te pulled the ball back to Nolan on the edge of the six yard box for the skipper to tap home. I didn’t celebrate – I’d seen the flag. However, the ref had spotted that the ball to Vaz Te had come not from the head of Ginge but from Clarke, who was having a pretty hapless minute or two.

That being the case, Vaz Te’s position on the pitch was irrelevant and, (and heaven knows how unclean I feel for writing the next few words) Mike Deane was spot on with his decision to overrule his assistant. There will now be a short pause in writing this report while I go for a shower.

Having spotted the flag I sort of cheated out of a goal celebration – having to wait a minute or so while the confusion died down sort of took the edge off things a bit. Still that’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things I suppose.

Half Time: West Ham United 1 Aston Villa 0




The interval was spent applauding a number of Olympians who had brought their medals to display. If you’re out for a few beers over the next few weeks be careful on your way home as it would appear that a number of manhole covers may be missing. The Olympians included Nicola Adams, the first ever female Olympic boxing champion. Fine sportswoman and, if you disagree, you go tell her yourself.

There were no personnel changes after the break. We had a slight – and I mean slight – concern when we went to sleep at a throw-in allowing Stephen Ireland to get what was Villa’s first proper shot on goal all day. JJ gathered it comfortably.

I said that there had been no personnel changes at the interval. Will that may not strictly be true. Whoever had been impersonating Mike Deane when we scored our goal had been kidnapped and the real thing had returned to the match. Either that or the robot referee had been returned to its default setting of “idiot”. How else to explain why, after Demel’s delightful chipped ball into the box, the ref failed to give a penalty for the most blatant push you are ever likely to see by Vlaar on Cole.

Often with refereeing decisions you can play devil’s advocate and spot why an error was made. Not with this one. Deane had a great view of the incident and the decision not to award the spot kick can safely be added to the “perverse for the sake of it” section of his records, a section that occupies the most of the storage capacity of three supercomputers. Which is why every light in the country dims when someone googles “Mike Dean controversy”. Still we can at least console ourselves with the fact that the Dean probably went home with a sunburnt head.

The proper order of the world restored the game, and more importantly we, settled down. The defence was sound and the midfield had everything nailed down nicely. Maybe it was the attraction of the shade that meant Villa kept playing the ball into touch though I think the more likely explanation was that they weren’t very good.

There was very little to worry about and, as the visitors started to run out of steam it was us that started knocking the ball about. Demel fed Vaz Te who nutmegged Baker and got down to the by-line. The pull back found Nolan whose shot was blocked on the line by a combination of ‘keeper and defender when perhaps the skipper might have done better. Nolan retrieved the rebound and sent in a cross which was only partially cleared and Vaz Te attempted one of those mid-air scissor-kicks like he put away against Brighton last season. His contact this time round wasn’t as clean however and a goal kick was the result.

In the heat – did I mention how flipping hot it was? – substitutions were inevitable and Linda came off to be replaced by Joey O’B whilst shortly after that Tomkins came on to replace Nolan in midfield. Nolan had probably looked like the one player who was beginning to flag.

Shortly after the introduction of Tomkins, JJ had what was only his second proper save of the afternoon to make – a long distance effort from Vlaar that was on target but gathered well by the otherwise-unemployed Finn.

Cole probably ought to have opened his account for the season with 15 left to play. Taylor had moved over to the right and was upended by Baker. After a delay while they made their third change, Taylor took the free-kick himself and curled in a beauty of a cross. Cole’s radar needs a bit of early season retuning unfortunately and the header went wide rather than giving us the goal that the quality of the cross deserved.

That was Cole’s last meaningful contribution of the match and he was replaced on 80 minutes by Modibo Maiga. Villa looked exhausted and the four minutes of stoppage time produced nothing of concern. In fact we should have had another.

Colins’ headed clearance fell to Noble whose clever flick saw Maiga bear down one on one against Given. The forward took the ball around Given but Baker had got back to clear off the line.

And that was that. Obviously it’s far too early to be drawing too much in the way of conclusions. It was pleasing to see us look much fitter than our opponents – which is not something we’ve been able to say too much over the years. Good – and as comfortable – as the win was, it does need to be considered in the light of the opposition and Villa were woeful.

Still those are merely minor words of caution – after all if you can’t bask in the glory of a victory on opening day when can you bask? The top two are next after all!



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Player Ratings

Jussi Jaaskelainen
Had two saves to make and made them well. His main worry must have been the effect of the sun – which on Nordic skins can be a bit nasty when it’s that hot.


Guy Demel
A much better game than his last run-out (at Wembley). Harder tests will come and I remain to be totally convinced but there were a few signs of a nice right side combination developing with Vaz Te.


George McCartney
Another fine debut. The lack of opposition allowed him to get forward as well.


James Collins
Outstanding. The sponsors gave him MOTM and, for once I’m inclined to agree.


Winston Reid
A good long run in the team has done him the power of good. A nice reintroduction to the top flight.


Mo Diame
Another fine debut. A tendency to over-elaborate on occasion sometimes saw him lose the ball but inevitable he would bust a gut and retrieve it.


Mark Noble
Like Diame he ha a tendency early on to overegg the pudding a bit. Once he started to keep it simple it was ok.


Kevin Nolan
Looked a bit off the pace as the match wore on but his decision to play to the whistle proved profitable.


Matthew Taylor
A quiet game – enlivened by some set piece deliveries.


Ricardo Vaz Te
Apart from his role in the goal and one or two touches I thought this was a disappointing run out. Was a bit in and out of the game though there were some nice bits of link up play with Demel from time to time.


Carlton Cole
Gave Vlaar a hard time. Ran himself into the ground (when not being pushed to it). Ought to have scored, perhaps, when Taylor’s cross ser him up on a plate.


Substitutes


Joey O Brien
(Replaced McCartney, 71)
Brought on to replace McCartney. Did a job defensively without providing quite the same threat going forward.


James Tomkins
(Replaced Nolan, 73)
Looked quite good in that controversial midfield role, though that has to considered against the quality of the opposition I suppose.


Modibo Maiga
(Replaced Cole, 81)
Could have crowned his ten minute debut with a goal at the death. Looked keen enough otherwise.


Stephen Henderson
Did not play.


Alou Diarra
Did not play.


Gary O'Neil
Did not play.


Nicky Maynard
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: Mike Dean.

Attendance: 34,172.

Man of the Match: James Collins.

West Ham United

Jussi Jaaskelainen, Guy Demel, George McCartney, James Collins, Winston Reid, Mo Diame, Mark Noble, Kevin Nolan, Matthew Taylor, Ricardo Vaz Te, Carlton Cole.

Goals: Kevin Nolan 41                  .

Booked: None.

Sent off: None.

Aston Villa

Shay Given, Matthew Lowton, Ron Vlaar, Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Brett Holman, Karim El Ahmadi, Fabian Delph, Charles N'Zogbia, Stephen Ireland, Darren Bent.

Substitutes: Andreas Weimann (Karim El Ahmadi 61), Gary Gardner (Charles N'Zogbia 74), Barry Bannan (Fabian Delph 77).

Subs not used: Bradley Guzan, Chris Herd, Eric Lichaj, Graham Burke.

Goals: None.

Booked: Ciaran Clark (39).

Sent Off: None.

 
Gordon Thrower's Man of the Match: James Collins


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