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Premier League
Saturday, 16th August 2008

West Ham United 2
Wigan Athletic 1

by Nick Bull


It's too idyllic for my liking. You know, the whole first day of the season theory. The sun is shining, the long summer without football is over, you put your lucky shirt on, you leave for the game all excited, your team win, you go home pleased. ........It's a worrying sign that, even after a fast paced start, Ashton's two goals failed to enliven me. For the first time since the barren Championship years, I feel someone, or something, has removed any enthusiasm I've had for the start of a season.

Regardless, there is no doubting that the open twenty five minutes were very impressive. The centre back pairing of Upson and Davenport looked reassuring– the latter proved a point to the doubters who judged him from his poor early 2007 performances – particularly in the air. In front of them, Parker and Noble were commanding the midfield, continuously breaking up Wigan's football and never shirking out of any challenges. Before the game, I thought the jury was out on Faubert, yet he wanted to contribute. To judge him this early on though is fickle, so I'll hold fire. His opposite number, ol' Matty Etherington, looked very lean, and was a menace for Mario Melchiot. I still doubt how effective the Ashton – Cole partnership can be, though in the first quarter of the game looked far superior than the Heskey – Zaki combination for the Latics.

Wigan won just two away games last season, so when Faubert's third minute cross found Ashton, who promptly turned his man with a show of considerable strength before firing home, you could be forgiven for thinking this would be a perfect chance to push on. So it seemed. The Latics were disjointed; defensively they were not a tight unit, and Etherington was having a prosperous start to the game down his left side. Barely six minutes after taking the lead, the advantage was doubled. A seemingly poor near post corner was flicked on by Cole, which found Davenport, whose volley found outside who finished the move off inches away from the goal. Offside was claimed, though with a man on the line, Steve Bruce's team were not rewarded for their minor complaints. The Boleyn was heating up, the atmosphere notching the decibel level up seemingly with every song, and chants of 'we are top of the League' were coming from the Claret and Blue faithful.

What occurs herein is the catalyst for so many disappointed faces comes 16h50. Thierry Henry was once asked what was the best thing about the England team. 'Their desire,' was his response. Then he was questioned on what was the weakest thing. Again, 'their desire', was the response. Whether or not he misunderstood the second part, he is spot on. When the National XI are playing well, they look a good side and win comfortably. As soon they concede, though, they panic. The same can be said of the closing 65 minutes of Saturday's game.

Suddenly, the two strikers were playing apart from each other. Supplying them with the ball isn't easy when this is the case, nonetheless after half time, I was convinced that the midfield had failed to return to the pitch, such the inaccuracy of the passing and the ineffectiveness of any commitment. The Wigan goal was a 'one from the training ground move', which can also be described as 'West Ham falling asleep'. The way Heskey was fighting off Davenport before the ball came onto the field of play suggested only one thing – he was the target. The finish was exemplary, and was the best goal of the fixture.

Neill may have had a poor game at left back (when Curbishley says that the Australian has played a lot of his career there, that doesn't mean he's competent in said position), though he was at no fault for the goal. He was left exposed at the back post marking two men, so someone obviously omitted the man marking orders from their memory during the interval. Even so, next opponents Manchester City targeted Neill during the three January fixtures last season, and here he was playing in his natural right-back position. Should he continue to deputise for McCartney next week, he could have a difficult game.

Still Wigan continued to attack in great numbers, looking increasing like a rampant Chelsea side since their 'steward jacket' florescent yellow change strip is similar to that of the West Londoners. Had it not have been for Zaki's inability to convert a free header from eight yards (he had also spurned their best chance in the first period), or the Hammers' defence struggling once again to deal with another long throw which reached the Wigan scorer, the result could have gone the opposite way. Green was rarely called into action, though when he did he looked impressive. One save, from a Palacios shot, showed great athleticism and a strong hand that palmed the ball safely over the bar.

Curbishley stated his delight in the way the side defended in the second half, which if you like seeing last-ditch tackles and an incoherent back four is worth praising. Any negativity prior to the game seems to have continued among the fan, and possibly even increased after such a tepid performance. Many will be asking where we've improved from last year. The next two figures, both against two tricky Premier League teams, will show us how West Ham will fare this season, and if we are a better side than that of the last campaign. Perhaps two good performances there will bring back my passion......

Reasons to be cheerful

-Ashton's two goals – the first was all about strength
-Green looked very assured in goal, making two very good saves

Reasons to be gloomy

-Ashton's substitution; let's hope his scan isn't bad news
-The second half panic
-Lack to strength in left back position
-Attendance under 33,000 for the opening game

(Player comments by Gordon Thrower)



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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Rarely bothered – unlike the back of the stand – but pulled off a fine save when required.


Valon Behrami
Looked good going forward but our defending deep policy curtailed his forages forward.


Lucas Neill
Looked a little better on the left than he had done in pre-season but I’ll be happier when Linda’s back.


Calum Davenport
Battled well – the odd lapse of concentration such as the one that led to his booking will have to go though.


Matthew Upson
Excellent and I make him MOTM for his calmness under the aerial onslaught.


Scott Parker
Gave the ball away a bit too often for my liking.


Nark Noble
An ok first half was tempered by his failure to show any authority in the second.


Julien Faubert
Got forward well but his final ball needs a bit of working on.


Matthew Etherington
Lively first half but disappeared from view in the second.


Dean Ashton
Took the goals well in an impressive first period though he was given little of the ball in the second period before he succumbed to injury.


Carlton Cole
Worked very hard throughout though it is perhaps notable that his most telling contributions came from defensive work.


Substitutes


Hayden Mullins
(replaced Parker, 73) Didn’t really register in the spell he was on.


Fred Sears
(replaced Ashton, 73) A couple of good runs and won the ball off defenders a few times.


Luis Boa Morte
(replaced Faubert, 85) Not on for too long but tracked back superbly for one run to break up a promising Wigan break.


Jan Lastuvka
Did not play.


Jordan Spence
Did not play.


Lee Bowyer
Did not play.


Kyel Reid
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: Steve Bennett.

Attendance: 32,758.

Man of the Match: Matthew Upson.

West Ham United

Robert Green, Valon Behrami, Lucas Neill, Calum Davenport, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Nark Noble, Julien Faubert, Matthew Etherington, Dean Ashton, Carlton Cole.

Goals: Dean Ashton 3 Dean Ashton 10                .

Booked: Scott Parker 39 Calum Davenport 49        .

Sent off: None.

Wigan Athletic

Kirkland, Melchiot, Figueroa, Palacios, Boyce, Scharner, Cattermole, Valencia, Kapo, Heskey, Zaki.

Substitutes: De Ridder (Melchiot 83), Koumas (Scharner 83), Sibierski (Cattermole 85).

Subs not used: Pollitt, Kilbane, Brown, Bramble.

Goals: Zaki (47).

Booked: Palacios (68).

Sent Off: None sent off.

 
Nick Bull's Man of the Match: Matthew Upson


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