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Saturday, 9th December 2000

West Ham United 1
Aston Villa 1

by Richard Osbourne

It seems that we play the Villains every fortnight. I confidently expect a room dedicated to John Gregory and his team in our new stadium, as they are forever at Upton Park these days.

Two teams which to be fair are evenly matched in most areas. The same style of football played by each side can cause a dull stalemate, but with Villa generally doesn't.

Our team line-up broke a huge smile across my face. Ian Pearce was back in the squad despite a week's worth of news reports saying 'out because of injury'. With Shaka behind Mr and Mr Pearce our back line was completed with Pottsy and Songy. Songy had a relatives funeral rearranged so that he could line up in our 90 minutes of need; what commitment! Please join the chorus of "we've only got one Song...".

Midfield saw us line up with Lomas as team captain, Sinclair, Carrick and (ahem) Kaba Diawara. Upfront the suite was completed with King Kanoute and Paulo. Not entirely sure about the Diawara position, it was obvious that Harry wanted to create more of a midfield presence. Obviously the Diawara/Kanoute up front option was seen as not strong enough, with Di Canio playing the roving role.

Taylor, the thorn in our side for many a game was not playing for the Claret and Blue pretenders (although they were in white for this day). David 'I am a footballeurrr, not a movie star' was though adding strength to their talented squad.

Both teams lined up for the kick off. All the players except for the
goalkeepers were no more than 20 yards away from the half way line, with gritted determination. Mike Riley blew the whistle and we were off. Just the thought of a game against this lot gets my blood racing. We know we can beat them, we are better than them, but then that is probably the exact mind frame of a Villa supporter. Now was the time for the truth.

We edged our way forward, often passing back in the opening stages to try to create room in the crowded playing area. Minutes in and we are pitched on the edge of their box, with dangerous looking balls being played from West Ham player to West Ham player. Song lets rip with an exhilarating 25-30 yard shot. The cameras cannot keep up and James is just left staring in horror as the ball rattles off the side netting. From the angle I was sitting and the way the ball went behind the goal, to looked like we had scored. Our campaign had just started.

Still parked on the edge of their box, we kept coming forward with purpose. Shots were blocked, crosses cleared, even Ian Pearce was setting up camp in the six yard box. A well worked shot from Michael 'I can shoot as well as tackle and pass brilliantly' Carrick. A scorcher from 20 yards went in off the inside of the post giving James no chance whatsoever.

We continued to press for a second goal to bury the game. Chances from Di Canio and Diawara went begging and Kanoute's efforts were not bearing fruit. Kanoute remains on excellent form and I didn't know whether he deserved a goal more than Di Canio, who should have silenced James on more than oneoccasion.

It would have been too easy to say that Villa would have been happy with a nil-nil draw, but this was not the case, even from the outset. Lee Hendrie was creating a lot of room in the 'hole' in front of our defence and behind the midfield. Merson had an excellent game creating chances and opportunities for Villa left right and centre. Stuart Pearce got a yellow card for one of his 'special' challenges that he normally gets away with. This seemed to quieten him for the rest of the game, but was utterly effective and efficient as one would expect/wish for.

Fifteen minutes later and against the run of play for goal mouth action
Hendrie found himself in the 'hole' again, and did a similar shot to
Carrick. Opened up a gap from a good 20 yards out and hit the ball past Hislop, rebounding in off the inside of the post. So unfair and I am sure that Shaka thought he had that covered.

It was from that point that I noticed a down turn in Shaka's game. His kicks were becoming erratic. Defenders were getting irritated by him and waving the at the ball for him to command his area. I heard Shaka shout three times for the ball; being in the Upper West, I have never heard him before. As the game progressed, he became less confident and was losing his silky reserve. I do hope that he is ok, but the performance deterioration was very marked. Lucky he wasn't called on too often.

Returning from that short concerning digression, Half Time blew and we trudged in, knowing that we should have got at least 2 or 3 more chances to end the game. A half that went in what seemed like seconds, left me gasping for more.

The second half was much the same. Ginola had been ineffective thanks to Song, yet another great performance, thank you Sir. Song has the knack of bringing the ball out and virtually getting to the 6 yard box until his amazing runs have completed. It scares the opposition no end, unsure what to do with the powerful, skilful player.

Carrick dropped back after his goal and did his trademark brilliant tackles. Diawara also dropped back to a position where he became ineffective. He is a forward, not a midfielder, and should have his strengths used where they count, ie. up front. Diawara eventually gave way to 'who let Moncur out, woo woo etc.'. Moncs also had a tough time of it, failing to get booked within 30 seconds (only joking), but also seemed to fail to get to grips with the game; very quiet for a change.

Di Canio started brightly but seems to have lost form in recent games. Still excellent mind, but not jaw droppingly, spankingly fantastic, which is the form we know and love. He got into a bit of a strop over a free kick and sulked when asked to leave it for Psycho. This normally spurs him into action after a small quiet sulky spell, but not today. He still looks so
deadly and to answer his critics will score or create a goal when least
expected.

Our team captain Steve Lomas looked a little out of sorts in the second
half too. His touches weren't at his best and his crosses/passes generally fell short of their target. There can be no denying his passion and tenacity which luckily became his saving grace.

Re-reading that lot sounds like I am moaning at a bad performance or
individual performances. Actually I'm not, perhaps I am enjoying our games too much and too ready to find fault by over using harsh criticism. Hopefully I'll get Football Manager 2001 for Christmas and find out what it's really like at the sharp end ;)

The game ended with me praying that we would nick a goal and on the contrary that they wouldn't do the same to us. An enjoyable game that flew past yet again. Still at 7th, still in front of Villa. A pounding at Goodison Park and a thumping at Filbert Street in the next couple of weeks should set us up nicely for a Christmas full of European promise.

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