West Ham United 1 Aston Villa 1

Sunday, 10th September 2006
by Gordon Thrower

I donít like international breaks. Donít get me wrong, Iím all in favour of the England side doing as well as possible and Iíll laugh along with the rest of the world as Scottish supporters convince themselves that Euro 08 is theirs for the taking on the strength of beating a few Danes grateful for the break from clinging desperately from a few windswept rocks in the North Sea. I even understand why international managers need to get their squads together prior to running up a cricket score against the inhabitants of a small bungalow surrounded by Italy. Itís just the disruption to my routine I canít handle.

I suspect the same goes for club managers up and down the country who, just as the season starts, see their best players whisked off to face the perils of a long and arduous journey into countries that didn't exist a few years ago. I'm also not a fan of circuses. As a kid I was the bored smart alec brat sat near you who would point out that the "Flying Waldinis - trapeze artists all the way from Italy" bore a remarkable resemblance to the "Amazing Armenian Acrobats" who, ten minutes earlier dressed in different coloured leotards had been tumbling all over the place like a Chelsea forward. And, as anyone who has endured an Alex Ferguson interview or Comic Relief day will attest, a red nose alone does not make someone funny. So, given that the last two weeks have been occupied by an international break filled with a circus, I've been like a bear with a sore head waiting for the football to return to get my routine back on track. And so, I reckon, has Alan Pardew.

It always amuses me how people seem to think that writing this stuff every week somehow gives me an inside track as to how the club works, as if AP rings me up every Friday for selection pointers. Of course that doesn't stop me giving my considered opinion anyway and the big question was which of our new signings would start against Villa. The general feeling was that Mascherano would make the starting XI whilst Tevez would start from the bench. I expressed the opinion this might be a classic piece of AP smokescreen and that both might start. Or neither. Strangely, the fact that this opinion covered all possible bases seemed to escape most people, and AP's decision to keep faith with all bar the injured Pantsil from the Liverpool match allowed me to say "I told you so" to a number of people, though I'll admit that keeping a straight face was a problem. With Carroll and Benayoun returning from injuries sustained on international duty (another reason to hate the break) we lined up thus: Carroll, Mears, Konchesky, Gabbidon, Ferdinand, Bowyer, Reo-Coker, Benayoun, Mullins, Harewood and Zamora.

We started brightly. When I say "we" I'm referring to us in the crowd who had clearly been somewhat inspired by the events of the previous 10 days. The players, however were a different matter. We seemed almost overawed by the appearance of the Sky cameras who had lucked out big time in selecting the match for coverage. Having failed to settle early on we went behind to a horrible goal on 3 minutes. A corner from the right fell straight to Laursen who probably won't have got that free a header in his life. Carroll did brilliantly to keep the header out but nobody reacted to the loose ball which was prodded home by Ridgewell from a few feet out. Had we had someone on the near post maybe we'd have had half a chance of clearing it but clearly this is a tactic that is not in vogue at present.

The crowd did their normal ten seconds of silence before going into rallying behind the side mode - a welcome development since our return to the Premiership. The players still weren't settling. Carroll seemed a bit slow off his line in coming out to collect a back heel from Petrov that was being chased down by the advancing Moore.

Yossi tried to calm things down a bit and his clever ball onto an equally clever run by Zamora deserved better than the weakfish cross straight to the 'keeper that Zamora was able to provide and we ought to have equalised on 7 minutes. Sorensen made a complete hash of a back pass and gave it straight to Harewood who made an even worse hash of things by sidefooting wide. Marlon had time to, well, do absolutely anything he wanted but the lad is clearly lacking in confidence at the moment and it was an absolute howler. This was a bit of a shame as there had been slight signs that we were beginning to begin to play though the final ball, particularly from wide positions, was lacking. If we'd scored at that point it would have been a very different half or game.

As it was the miss seemed to affect everyone. If we strung two passes together someone would dwell on the ball and lose it. Another corner nearly proved our undoing - as if the goal hadn't been enough warning. Angel lost Ferdinand far too easily but headed powerfully against the bar when it was easier to score. It was shocking defending and we were very fortunate not to be 2-0 down.

Frankly we lacked ideas. Bereft of width with both Yossi and Bowyer being drawn inside all too often we were treated to a frustrating succession of long floating balls in the general direction of the Villa central defence. A miskick from a Mears throw did flick off an arm but it was never a penalty. The Villa fans, bless 'em treated us to oh so hilarious shouts of "handball" for a few minutes though in that oh so clever way that the rest of the world abandoned about 30 years ago when they realised how stupid it made them sound.

On 20 minutes another corner and more problems. You may note a developing theme here. It wasn't even a good corner but Mullins contrived to dwell on it in the 6 yard box and Moore prodded the ball goalwards with a hasty and panicked clearance from Ferdinand sorting it out. Well sort of. Agbonlahor cut in and shot from the Villa right for Carroll save well. Ironically Carroll's clearance might have set us up on the break but NRC failed to get the ball out to the extra man we had and the break came to naught.

Even a quick free kick to Bowyer in space while the Villa defence were asleep failed to produce a decent shot. Barry then picked up a card for a hack at Bowyer but Mullins' free kick into the box was feeble in the extreme. It was frustrating stuff and annoying too as Villa put the ball out for an injury that ref Bennett had clearly indicated was not serious enough to warrant a stoppage in play.

Unusually Villa then created a chance from open play as Barry's cross found Angel unencumbered by a meaningful challenge from Gabbidon his header clipping the top of the bar. The best bit of football of the half then saw a nice interchange of passes between NRC and Zamora. NRC burst through the space in the middle but elected to shoot with his right rather than his left and his shot went harmlessly wide. A Yossi long throw then fell nicely for Mears but whilst Terry did well to keep the ball down his shot would have required a deflection of L*ampardesque proportions to have gone in before Ridgewell's clearance. Ref Bennett then added to his reputation for fussiness by needlessly stopping play for what admittedly was a foul by Angel but, since the ball had broken nicely stopping play only rewarded the perpetrator rather than the victim. To add insult to injury Zamora got a telling off for what was presumably an enquiry as to whether the ref had got as far as "advantage" in the laws of the game what with it being so close to the start of the index page and all.

The half ended with a half-decent spell of passing being let down by a poor cross from Konchesky. That final-ball syndrome rears its ugly head once more. Oh and a booking for Mullins prompted by the worst piece of amateur dramatics at the Boleyn since a certain Mr Garcia suffered an exploding brain last season. Petrov rolled about embarrassingly for about half an hour conning the ref into believing that a major bout of slaughter had taken place rather than the slight nudge that had actually occurred. A foul yes a booking no.

The second half started a bit brighter for the home side with Harewood getting into a decent position on the right only to be driven a bit too wide by Barry to get a meaningful effort in. Five minutes after the restart we were level. NRC latched onto Harewood's ball into space on the right before cutting along the goal-line. The ball in towards Zamora required a sliding clearance for a corner to prevent the equaliser. It delayed it by seconds. Bowyer's corner to the edge of the box found Konchesky totally unmarked. Konch's downward header was powerful and Zamora got the last touch off his thigh in front of an unsighted Sorensen to level the scores. O'Neill spent the next five minutes complaining that a throw-in decision in the build-up had gone against his side. He was wrong.

The players were almost still celebrating when the wheels could have come off. Petrov was allowed to get goal side of his marker and was clean through. His lob easily beat the stranded Carroll but Mears got back superbly to hook off the line for a magnificent clearance. As Bowyer cleared the ball down the line he was floored by a late challenge from McCann. It was the challenge that we've seen result in red cards against us on a number of occasions over the years - cards for Defoe and Connolly a couple of years ago spring to mind. Ref Bennett, correctly in my opinion, gauged that a yellow was sufficient punishment but it was a decision that did underline the lack of consistency between referees and given their tendency to adjudicate by reputation I do wonder what the decision would have been had Bowyer been the criminal rather than the victim.

We then needed another goal-line clearance to stay level. Barry's powerful effort from distance was parried by Carroll. The ball came in from wide but Ferdinand was on hand to clear from off the line. Zamora then picked up a yellow for complaining once too often about having his shirt pulled, it presumably not occurring to the ref to do anything about the shirt pulling itself. We started to look a bit more with it and, though Bowyer's cross from the right was too close to the keeper it at least did look a bit more useful.

On the hour we introduced a new player. You may have heard that we signed a couple before the window closed. Tevez came on to generous applause in place of Harewood who, it's fair to say, has had better days. If the applause for his introduction was generous, the cheer that accompanied Tevez's first touch was, well, frankly a bit over the top. Zamora did well to force a corner on 63 minutes and failing to clear the corner properly, Villa gave away a free-kick on the edge of the box. However, once the wall had been taught the difference between feet and yards we saw yet another waste of a free-kick in a promising position, Konch's cross drifting harmlessly wide. This is clearly an area that requires working on.

The ref then awarded a free-kick against Yossi not for a foul - people in the back row of the Chicken Run probably got closer - but for thinking about a foul, the decision being given by a bored-looking linesman. Strange how officials seem able to use their sixth sense whilst not bothering with one of the other five. Also it does beg the question that, with all that telepathy going on how come they need to be in radio contact all the time?

With twenty left Etherington replaced Bowyer. The proposed return of the left winger has been overshadowed somewhat by other events but it was a welcome move to give added width as we began to get more of a grip on the game. With 15 left Tevez went on a useful run at the Villa left hand side only to see nobody coming on to his pull back, Zamora having made the run for a squarer pass. Another cross from the left, this time from Konchesky saw yet more confusion in the "corridor of uncertainty" but again nobody gambled on a touch. A free-kick from another theatrical tumble (right up to Armenian Acrobat standard this time) might have seen Baros score with his first touch but the ball sailed harmlessly wide.

Cole replaced Zamora for the last ten, Bobby receiving warm applause for yet another goal. Whilst both sides pushed forward in search of the winner, meaningful chances failed to crop up at either end and we even seemed to have sorted out corners and crosses with Carroll confidently collecting. The last effort fell Yossi's way with him failing to keep down his volley from Cole's knock-down and that was it.

Although we finished stronger than we'd started, and notwithstanding the fact that things might have been a lot different had Harewood not missed the early sitter, this was, overall a less than impressive performance. Yes, it's probable that the events of the last two weeks did have a detrimental effect on the team this time out. However, it's something that we'll need to get out of our system as soon as possible. Standards were set last season that a few haven't quite lived up to yet this time out and a return to sanity is required as soon as possible. Palermo at home under the lights would be as good a place as any. I'm looking forward to that a hell of a lot more than I was this game - as I said I'm not a fan of circuses!

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Player Ratings

Roy Carroll
Looked a wee bit uncertain early on but made a number of fine saves to keep us in it.

Tyrone Mears
Uncomfortable at times his distribution certainly needs working on. Incredible work for the clearance though.

Paul Konchesky
Good in spells. Worrying in others. Good header for the goal though.

Anton Ferdinand
Another who recovered from a shaky start. Fortunately the lapses at corners weren't punished. We may not be as lucky another time.

Danny Gabbidon
Finished well but the start caused the premature birth of whole litters of kittens in E13. Corners were a particular worry.

Hayden Mullins
Normal game is win the ball lay it off. Today it was win the ball. Lose it. Passing none too great either.

Nigel Reo-Coker
All too often he failed to spot the early, and usually easier option, dwelling on the ball too much before running into a blind alley or losing the ball cheaply.

Lee Bowyer
Won the ball well but often seemed at a loss as to what to do with it. Often drawn in side when width might have been useful.

Yossi Benayoun
Lots of effort but again got drawn inside when width was needed.

Bobby Zamora
Not always pretty but you can't argue that he's effective. I thought his goal was a clever bit of instinctive poaching.

Marlon Harewood
To say that he needs a goal is like saying that I need a pint right now. He's not really performed this season and his position must be in danger with the arrival of new blood up front.


Carlos Tevez
(Replaced Harewood, 61) Some nice runs. Will be interesting when people learn to play it to his feet more often. Possibly needs to lose a few lbs though - the Argentinian striped shirts are obviously more flattering than our home kit!

Matthew Etherington
(Replaced Bowyer, 72) His return was somewhat lost amongst all the shenanigans of the last few days. Added some much-needed width and we're going to need that in the coming weeks.

Carlton Cole
(Replaced Zamora, 83) Some good knock downs and brought some variety to the attack. Might be worth an earlier run out some time Bobby's form permitting.

Robert Green
Did not play.

Javier Mascherano
Did not play.

Match Facts

West Ham United: Roy Carroll, Tyrone Mears, Paul Konchesky, Anton Ferdinand, Danny Gabbidon, Hayden Mullins, Nigel Reo-Coker, Lee Bowyer, Yossi Benayoun, Bobby Zamora, Marlon Harewood.

Goals: Bobby Zamora 52                  .

Booked: Hayden Mullins 46 Bobby Zamora 58        .

Sent Off: None sent off.     .

Aston Villa: Sorensen; Ridgewell, Barry, Mellberg, Laursen; Davis, McCann, Agbonhalor, Petrov; Moore, Angel.

Subs not used: Gardner, Whittingham, Taylor, Berger.

Goals: Ridgewell (4).

Booked: Barry (26), McCann (55).

Sent off: None.

Referee: S.Bennett.

Attendance: 34,576.

Man of the Match: Roy Carroll.