At the end of this game, decided by Gabriel Agbonlahor's injury time goal, the West Ham players slumped to the ground, looking drained and shell-shocked. This was a 'must-win' game that the Hammer's looked to have taken an undeserved point from, but Villa got the winner their play merited following a second-half mauling of the home defence in which both Ashley Young and Stuart Downing left Hammers defenders trailing in their wake in a succession of potent attacks.
The fat lady may not yet have sung for West Ham United but she is sure as hell on the podium and gargling and nothing bar another 'Great Escape' Mk II will see this season ending in smiles.
It all looked so different at the start of the game. In a match designated as the 'Best of British' in which fans were encouraged to wave flags and celebrate the memory of the great Bobby Moore and highlight the charity that bears his name, it was hoped to produce an atmosphere in which West Ham would throw off the fears of relegation and take the game to as side which - strangely - had been flirting with the bottom three themselves a few weeks back. It almost worked when Robbie Keane swivelled and shot home after only three minutes; the Villa defenders appealing for offside. The on-loan Spurs striker did look off but it seems he was played on by Young guarding the post. The Boleyn Ground exploded as Keane celebrated wildly and it looked as if this might be the springboard for a home victory.
West Ham then flattered to decieve; Cole had a hard shock blocked, the same man was then denied a strong shout for a penalty after being bundled over by Dunne chasing a through ball - I didn't see clearly but I thought Cole seemed to go down too easily (Replays suggest he didn't although it did appear to be a foul outside the box) - before the Irons' No: 9 brought a smart low save from Friedel after shooting on the turn.
That spell ended after 23 minutes though when a Bent goal was disallowed for pushing (incorrectly). Villa now started to press forward and when Heskey robbed Noble and slipped the ball to for Luke Young to cross for Bent to head past Green, Upton Park's party atmosphere dissipated. Although the rest of the half was fairly even, Villa looked a different proposition after the break, forcing West Ham back and producing excellent saves from Rob Green whose acrobatics keep the home side in the game. Firstly, Bent got away and shot low but Green got one hand to it before the keeper made an even better stop from a free-kick given for a Noble tackle on the edge of the area.
It was all Aston Villa now with Downing and Young tormenting both flanks, Young once chasing the ball from one wing to another, losing possession and gaining it again in a dazzling display of wide play that left the West Ham defence chasing shadows. True Da Costa went off early for an injury after only 15 minutes, replaced by Gabbidon, a bad injury forced O'Neill to be carried off just after the hour and the team was already shorn off the not-insignificant prescence of true Captain and leader Scott Parker but, even so, it was a chastening experience.
When the board was held up that showed four minutes were being added, some fans cheered hoping to see their heroes snatch a late winner as they did last season. Me? I groaned. It looked four minutes too long - and so it proved. Another cross, another header and Rob Green beaten this time.
Where do we go from here? The Championship is probably likely to be the most accurate reply and that's certainly my feeling now. Grant's team selection again looked odd; it was difficult to see why Obinna had been selected being as he wasn't thought first choice recently and his position out wide added nothing either forward or backward. Demba Ba's bench warming also seemed puzzling being as he was 'rested' a couple of weeks back for the rigours of the relegation dogfight. Avram, mate - this is it now. There is nothing else. But with relegation almost assured with this result we should treat that as good news! West Ham play their best football when all hope is lost. Expect five wins on the trot...
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