Saturday, 21st March 2015
Slow, turgid even, not the most palatable of fare, but a win's a win, when all is said and done. It's an odd contrast to the decent game we shared at their place earlier in the season.
I said then that I didn't think Sunderland would have too much to worry about. Well, I was dead wrong about that! With 12 defeats this season, they could easily be up with Stoke (and us) on 42 pts. However, their continuing inability to score goals or turn draws (14 of them) into victories (only 4) means they languish just a point above the relegation zone.
Certainly, the good football that both sides played in mid-December was lacking. Again, as in December, Sunderland failed to create many chances. No surprise, then, that only Villa have scored fewer so far this season.
On 7 minutes, Wickham stung Adrian's palms with a fizzer from the edge of the area, but it was straight at the keeper, and not especially challenging. Just before the quarter-hour, a poor defensive header from Kouyate, again at centre back, allowed Fletcher to head through to Defoe.
With Cresswell poorly positioned, caught the wrong side, you feared the worst. And then there's the track record of all our ex-players in scoring against us. Especially him - four goals in his last five Premier League appearances against us... Happily, Defoe lacked composure, blazing high, wide, an' not very 'an'some.
Their only other chance worth a mention came with only a quarter-hour to go. Adrian did well to get to a sudden, vicious 25 yarder from van Aanholt. Whilst a decent save, I'm convinced it was already a few inches wide.
So the Black Cats' best chance was from a West Ham error, and aside from that, they created very little. Defoe and Wickham carried most of their threat, but our defence, with Collins leading bravely yet again, was more than equal to their limited efforts.
In December, I thought they'd be fine; now, I wouldn't like to say. Leicester aren't playing badly, but aren't winning points and are starting to come adrift. QPR are utterly reliant on their home form and even that doesn't look good enough on its own.
But Burnley are certainly in there fighting and, at the moment, it looks like one from four to fill the third relegation place. It could easily be Sunderland on today's showing.
Not that we were an awful lot better, it must be admitted. The riddle of our form remains unanswered. We lift ourselves against the big clubs, and fall flat against the rest. It's been that way for the whole of this calendar year.
We had a bit more of the possession than Sunderland, but struggled just as much to break through the defence. We started to flicker, rather fitfully, into life just after Defoe's fluff, when Sakho did well to turn a fairly bad ball into a half-chance for Nolan; Pantilimon saved easily.
On 20, a good run from Downing resulted in a dangerous low ball across the 6 yard box that eluded everyone. Crossed back in from the left, high this time, Sakho got a good header on it, but was half a yard wide.
Referee Lee Mason made one of three pretty poor decisions when, a couple of minutes later, he somehow managed to see Pantilimon winning the ball and ploughing straight through Sakho as a foul against the keeper.
Song struck a 30 yard volley sweetly on the half-hour, but it was a comfortable save again, and then the first of three controversial decisions; another link to the December game - penalty shouts.
Nolan was rushing into the 6 yard box to try to get on the end of one of too few decent through balls. Pantilimon went down at his feet and comfortably beat Nolan to it. Nolan then fell over the Cats' keeper, the consequence of a definite nudge in the back.
Was it a penalty? There were a lot of protests about the one that Sunderland won at the Stadium of Light. "Tomkins hardly touched him, Johnson dived!" were the irate cries then. There was no more contact on Nolan. Funny, but I don't hear any West Ham cries about diving this time.
I said of Tomkins on Johnson that it was a soft penalty, but a penalty nevertheless. On balance, I think I have to say the same this time too. However, Mason must not have been best placed to see how much contact on Nolan there was, since he actually blew up for a foul on the keeper; his second poor decision.
Half-time saw the lively Jarvis replaced by Cole; tactical or injury driven has yet to be explained. Five minutes later, Sakho was heading wide again, from a Cresswell cross.
Then, just after the hour, the second controversy, the second penalty shout, Nolan again. This time he was pulled down by Vergini, quite clearly, but instead was given offside. It is correct that Nolan was in an offside position, but the ball was flicked on by O'Shea, which plays him onside.
Mason can perhaps be criticised for not over-ruling his linesman, but if he didn't see the ball come off of O'Shea's bonce, he has no grounds to do so. No such excuse for the linesman. He had a clear view of the play, or ought to have had. He should have been flagging for a foul, not an offside. Not really Mason's fault, that one.
Still, what goes around come around, sometimes in the same game. With only 3 minutes of regulation time remaining, Nene, on for Nolan, rather came over the top of Larsson, I think. Everyone seems to be rather mystified by the lack of a free-kick, which it probably should have been; Mason's third ricket of the game.
However, the Sunderland players, even Larsson himself, raised no protest either then or afterwards, nor did Noble hesitate. He deftly played the loose ball through to Sakho, who dispatched it, right-footed, across Pantilimon into the far corner.
A deserved win? Both sides were sufficiently poor that it seems wrong to speak of "deserved". The right result? Undoubtedly. Sunderland only really tested Adrian once and that was off-target; we had a stonewall penalty denied to us in the second half, so 1-0 was about right.
As for Man of the Match, that's almost as undeserved as "deserved!" Jarvis, in only his second start of the season, was again a candidate until he came off. Sakho obviously is, with the goal, his running, a couple of decent chances and, on at least one occasion, turning a bad ball into something useful.
However, I shall give it to Collins today. Ginger can be a bit of a mare at times, as well as something of a carthorse, and distinctly agricultural in his defending sometimes! He only made the one mistake today that I can recall. Just before half-time, he caught Defoe from behind, and probably should have been booked for it.
That aside, he led the defence well, made his tackles, and made his blocks. He was his usual courageous self, too, including stooping to put his non-too-handsome features in severe danger of catching a high boot (no blame to the Mackem player, who couldn't have seen him coming).
Although no individual was especially poor, the performance of the team as a whole was decidedly lacklustre again. Rather disappointing, but a win is a win, and we were overdue one. With an international break again, we've two weeks to get Reid and Valencia fit, Nene and Cole fitter. Hopefully, two weeks in which Sam can finally puzzle out why we fail to match our "Big Team" performances against other sides.
He certainly needs to, because our next match is by no means an easy one. We're away to Leicester, who may be 7 points shy of safety, but who also, as noted, are not playing badly. A couple of wins would make a huge difference to them.
Before they meet Chelsea at the end of April, they've a run of 4 winnable matches that could make or break their season, starting with us. You can bet your lives they will be targetting this next game as one they badly want three points from.
Us? We've nothing to play for any more. Or have we? We're certainly well-placed to finish 8th. As I said in my Arsenal report, despite the disappointment of the 2015 run of results, that would represent a really good achievement for us.
Even if Europe is beyond us, which it surely is now, there is still also the possibility of perhaps making seventh, if one of the teams above us falls away. Each league position was worth an extra £1.2M last season, and I presume it's the same this time. Seventh instead of ninth, an extra £2.4M, nothing to play for? That's half an Alex Song (or his reputed desired salary, at least)!
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Adrian San Miguel del Castillo
Only had one real save to make. And that was going wide.
Solid and unremarkable.
Caught out by Kouyate's poor header, but managed a couple decent crosses to balance the scales.
Man of the Match.
Needs a lot more game time at DC before he is convincing, but did OK again, one bad mistake aside.
Quietish sort of game, still scratching around for form, by his late-2014 standards.
Not a bad game from the captain. Definitely unlucky not to win a penalty.
The usual sort of Noble performance, although his set-pieces were not at all good, on the whole.
Another game of occasional flashes, but I don't think a 4-5-1 helped him much today.
I was slightly surprised he started; I was expecting Cole to be alongside Sakho. He did well enough again, though he was subbed for some reason at half-time.
Hard-working and a good finish, but slightly misfiring at times.
(Replaced Jarvis) Not fit enough for 90 minutes, according to Sam afterwards, he certainly put a shift in for the 45 he was on.
(Replaced Nolan) He may be Brazilian, but he certainly doesn't seem to shirk a challenge. A vital part of the goal, although he probably did commit a foul.
Joey O Brien
(Replaced Sakho) The principal reason for bringing him on in injury time seemed to be to allow Sakho to collect the applause on his way off!
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Referee: Lee Mason.
Man of the Match: James Collins.
West Ham United
Adrian San Miguel del Castillo, Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Cresswell, James Collins, Cheikou Kouyate, Alex Song, Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble, Stewart Downing, Matt Jarvis, Diafra Sakho.
Goals: Diafra Sakho 88 .
Booked: n/a .
Sent Off: None sent off. .
Costel Pantilimon, Patrick van Aanholt, John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Anthony Réveillere, Jack Rodwell, Sebastian Larsson, Jordi Gómez, Jermain Defoe, Connor Wickham, Steven Fletcher.
Substitutes: Santiago Vergini (Wes Brown 12), Adam Johnson (Steven Fletcher 73).
Subs not used: Vito Mannone, Liam Bridcutt, Duncan Watmore, Billy Jones, Danny Graham.
Booked: Connor Wickham (63).
Sent Off: None sent off..