Saturday, 25th October 2014
We lost four of four - and 14 goals to one - to Abu Dhabi Inc last year. True, for some of those games we fielded no more than a skeleton side, but the Gulf (pun intended!) between the clubs was painfully obvious. So far this season the gulf between the Citizens and Chelsea as compared with everyone else has been almost as wide.
The BBC report on the game has it that we were "hanging on". True enough, up to a point, but the truth is we were worth every one of the three points we've won. We matched the champions in every department, fought them over every blade of grass; crucially, as with Burnley last week, we finished better.
Of last season's closing match I wrote, "That gulf, despite the effort we put in, was amply demonstrated again today. City had angles all over the pitch all game long. Two steps for a City player usually locked off our preferred pass up the bylines; inside there was rarely an alternative option."
Nothing could have been less true at the Boleyn today. City were hardly dominated, but they got no easy ride, nothing for free. In the crucial middle part of the field, they were hustled and harried, and the easy, comfortable knockabout play that they enjoyed previously was completely denied to them.
Top man today, for me, was Song. Our midfield workhorse for so long has been Mr West Ham, Mark Noble, but he was completely over-shadowed by Alex in this game. He has been solid defensively the whole season. He was again today. My feeling at the end was that he'd done more defending than the defense.
My criticism of him over the last few games has been that he is too often slow and erratic, too frequently from deep, in his attacking play. Not today. His sublime pin-point pass to Valencia to set up our first was worthy of any team in the world. Against possibly the best footballing side in England today, he was too cute, too clever, and more or less always where he needed to be.
City, it is true, were below their best. Nevertheless, Pellegrini, as you would expect from him, was dignified in defeat, and only too happy to praise an excellent Hammers performance. Certain Manchester managers of the past were nothing like as generous, in defeat or victory!
Of the game itself, at the end of my Burnley report, I wondered whether Sam would stick with the same team and tactics, or whether he'd succumb to the temptation of playing his more usual mode of stifling football against one of the "big" clubs. Valencia had the first shot, albeit wild and wayward, with no more than twelve seconds on the clock. This, as it turned out, signalled our intent to play exactly the same attacking game that we've used for most of the season.
"Where are the 'Sam Out' brigade?" has been a much-asked question in the last week or so (an opinion piece may yet germinate!). The short answer is "Supporting our club, as always". Of course, no-one is protesting about the tactics this season. This is what we asked for, this is what we're getting, this is what we wanted, and it's wonderful to watch. Especially when we win!
The first goal came courtesy of the afore-mentioned sublime Song pass. Valencia accelerated past Mangala in pursuit of it, and cut it back across the six yard box. Somehow, the pass evaded two defenders and Joe Hart, leaving Amalfitano with an easy tap in.
He was sacrificed in favour of Kouyate on 65, after a very solid game, probably his best so far in our shirt. His replacement got involved immediately. It was only a few minutes after his introduction that a Song - Kouyate - Sakho move resulted in a shot just over. Two minutes later, we were two - nil ahead.
After two peaches of crosses last week, another pin-point delivery meant Sakho had Hart clawing the ball out from just inside the post. Sakho went running to the linesman and, in a Boleyn and West Ham first, it seems that technology confirmed the ball had crossed the line. Two - nil, who'd a thunk it?!
Pity it didn't last. We promptly went to sleep. It was only two minutes after that that Silva went on a beautiful mazy run and buried the ball past Adrian's despairing dive with a lovely finish. Terrific though the goal was, Noble, Downing, and Reid all failed to put a meaningful challenge in.
Thus we were faced with a nervy last fifteen or so. For all of City's effort, though, they created no more clear cut chances than they did in the preceding 75. Nor did they stem the Irons' attacking intent. Noble had a shot saved on 83, and Sakho almost immediately had a weak penalty shout, rightly not given. Shoulder to shoulder with, I think, Mangala, he went to ground and was accidentally clattered by the onrushing Hart.
No penalty and, a few minutes later, a still slightly dazed Sakho was replaced by Nolan. Six in six, though; the man cannot stop scoring, even against the best the Premiership has to offer. Post-match, Sam is worrying a little about his injury. We can only only hope that it is innocuous.
The best thing about the game, I must say, is again the performance, rather than the result. I'm Old School, I'm a traditionalist. In the face of long years of evidence, I still think that the way you play football matters more than the results you get. I still think that playing the game as the Beautiful Game will win you more than you will ever lose, even if an inglorious defeat and the occasional relegation will be your lot.
Right now, we are within waving distance of magnificent. Sam must be given credit. He might have bottled it today, he might have set up to stifle. He didn't. We're not perfect, but then when have we ever been? The odd game here and there, perhaps.
Right now, we're watching the West Ham Way that Ol' Sir Red Nose apparently doesn't understand or recognise. I seem to remember Sam last season speaking disparagingly of the same. Now he's playing it - isn't it wonderful?
Citizens will no doubt be disappointed to have lost; we Hammers are jubilant. Neutrals, I am sure, will simply be delighted by the game. By any measure, it was a damn fine 90 minutes of football. Pellegrini thinks his team were unlucky to lose. He may be right.
It's not as though they were short on possession or chances. An astonishing 70 per cent is the after-match stat for the former. Only five of 21 shots on target (compared with four of 12 for us) tells a slightly different story.
The fact that so few shots were on target is a testament to the defensive qualities of both sides. On the other hand, 33 chances, more than one every three minutes? Entertainment in spades, diamonds, hearts for both our clubs!
In the modern football world, it will never be often that we beat City, United, Chelsea or Arsenal. Financially, for whatever reason, we are, and will surely remain, distant from them. If we could do an Arsenal; qualify for the CL for an unbroken decade and more; we may elbow our way into august company.
It's not simply the money, though money of course helps. Cachet is every bit as important. To attract the very best, you have to be playing the very best; not merely match the paying. Beating City might be only a false dawn. But if it truly is a new sun peeping over the horizon?
Right now (yes, again "right now"), we have a team and a squad that looks as though it can challenge the hegemony. Right now, we need fear no-one. Right now, we can match anyone. We won't manage the consistency needed, and we'll probably finish about 8th, but that hardly matters.
"On our day" is a phrase that has been too little appropriate in the past few years. But "on our day", well, we've always been a challenge to whoever has been Top Dog. Right now (yes, again "right now"), "our day" is more of an expectation than a hope. Quality and confidence, both, run through our squad... Isn't it wonderful?
Next up is is Stoke away. The Potters are no less difficult under Sparky than they were under Pulis, if a tad less tedious on the eye. If we play as we did today, a result is, nevertheless, the least we can expect, though a win will be a harder task.
No report from me, however. The delights of Norwich Beer Festival beckon, so I will miss the game entirely. Stoke away is, to my mind, the least attractive game we have this season, so good timing, if wholly accidental it must be said.
But we are happily ensconced in fourth at the moment. In the past, Stoke would be something that I would have seen as a battle where a point would be a decent result. Now, I look at it still as a battle, but one where a point is the least that I expect.
How quickly things can change! Stoke away, Villa at home, Everton, Newcastle... Whilst there are never easy games in the Premier League, Everton aside, the next game that I could point to and say "not losing would be a good result" is Chelsea away on Boxing Day (immediately followed by Arsenal at home; happy festivities everyone!).
Winning the league is naught but a dream, Champions League qualification scarcely more. And yet, and yet... Where might we be when turkeys are being carved on Dec 25? Still 4th? I'd take that right now, and right now it's not unlikely.
Blow bubbles. We've waited long enough to watch them rise! What happens next is almost immaterial. Now is Dreaming Time...
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Adrian San Miguel del Castillo
A couple of instinctive reaction saves, and a spectacular though comfortable one from longer range. Kept us in it in the first half last week, kept us ahead this week!
Tidy and solid in the face of one of the stiffest tests he will face this season.
Another quality performance at left-back. It takes something to make me forget... whatsisname... but Cressie is doing it. George! That was his name! George!
As Song put Noble in the shade, so did Collins unto Reid. Solid, adequate, but no more than that.
Functional again, who would ask anything more? Brave as always, who could ask anything more? Several key challenges, particularly in the latter stages. A rock upon which City broke...
By no means a bad game, and certainly hardworking, but almost everything that was good bypassed him today. Corners mostly hit the first defender, too.
Man of the Match, 'nuff said!
As the film has it, a Clear And Present Danger throughout his three-quarters of the game.
As with others, no lack of effort today, yet not quite up to his usual standards. And isn't that a nice thing to be able to say!
Right now... Well, scored again, worked hard again... The real question is will we be able to hang on to him come season's end? Yes, right now, he looks that bloody good!
Still, he is not all there. Still, I await the game in which he fully lights up. Until then... I'll take this every game. Challenging to deal with, rather than devastating; one of these days...
(Replaced Amalfitano) A welcome return to action. Worked hard and imposed himself on the City midfield for his quarter.
(Replaced Valencia) Slipped on almost unnoticed, and harried pretty well for the last 15, when little service was his lot.
(Replaced Sakho) Again a five, simply because he had no time to affect the game.
Did not play.
Joey O Brien
Did not play.
Did not play.
Ricardo Vaz Te
Did not play.
Referee: Martin Atkinson.
Man of the Match: Alex Song.
West Ham United
Adrian San Miguel del Castillo, Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Cresswell, Winston Reid, James Collins, Mark Noble, Alex Song, Morgan Amalfitano, Stewart Downing, Diafra Sakho, Enner Valencia.
Goals: Morgan Amalfitano 21 Diafra Sakho 75 .
Booked: Morgan Amalfitano 7 Alex Song 47 .
Sent Off: None sent off. .
Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala, Gael Clichy, Gonzalez Jesus Navas, Francisco Fernando, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero.
Substitutes: Stevan Jovetic (Edin Dzeko 59), Aleksandar Kolarov (Gael Clichy 78), James Milner (Francisco Fernando 78).
Subs not used: Luis Fernandinho, Willy Caballero, Martin Demichelis, Bacary Sagna.
Goals: David Silva (77).
Booked: Vincent Kompany (44).
Sent Off: None sent off..