Sunday, September 21, 2008

King David

West Ham United v Newcastle United, Upton Park, London, Saturday September 20 2008, 3pm.

This is your credit-crunched correspondent's first game of the season, our visit to the Boleyn Ground happily co-inciding with Gianfranco Zola's first game in charge, providing an excellent opportunity to witness first-hand the start of a promising new era. Today's opponents Newcastle United are experiencing their own period of tumult, although in contrast to the Hammers' swift, transparent succession process, they find themselves in lengthy limbo, apparently no nearer to appointing their new gaffer than when Kevin Keegan walked out a few weeks back.

Both sides field makeshift teams due to injury and/or suspensions, with Zola experimenting with a 4-3-3 formation, swapping Julien Faubert and Valon Behrami around on the right flank, and moving skipper Lucas Neill to the centre of defence. Deadline day signings Herita Ilunga and David diMichele make their home debuts, and it's diMichele who makes the most immediate impression with an early blocked shot looping over keeper Shay Given into the net. This settles down the home team who establish a dominant pattern over the visitors for the rest of the half, with the lively diMichele doubling the advantage with some persistent play midway through the half. Newcastle look bereft of belief and purpose, their back four offering little resistance to the energy and workrate of diMichele and a rejuvenated Carlton Cole, and Butt and Cacapa looking similarly pedestrian compared to the industry and thrust of Scotty Parker and Mark Noble.

The second half is a little more competitive, but the game seems over when a scuffed diMichele shot steers the ball directly into the path of an onrushing Matty Etherington, who makes no mistake to establish a three-goal lead. Such a cushion is a rare treat for the team and supporters alike, the latter relishing the opportunity to roar 'You're going down with the Tottenham!' at the beleagured Toon Army, but high hopes for a clean sheet are dashed when some slack play gives visiting hotshot Michael Owen a half-chance at goal which he finishes with customary aplomb. This prompts a ten-minute spell where Newcastle exert some pressure on a suddenly quite edgy West Ham, with smart saves required from keeper Robert Green to maintain the advantage. The pressure peters out as the clock ticks by, however, and it's Hammers sub Luis Boa Morte who's presented with the best subsequent goal-scoring opportunities, both wastefully spurned before the full-time whistle puts the Geordie faithful out of their misery.

A fine start for the new Zola regime, then, with the tactical tinkering all paying off, diMichele winning the fans over with immediate effect, and a strong all-round team performance including Parker and Cole playing their best games we've witnessed in the Hammers shirt. The team's problems haven't disappeared overnight, and our away form and defensive concentration levels still need addressing, but our difficulties are put in sharp perspective when considering the woes of Newcastle, who face an uncertain future if their current lack of leadership, on and off the pitch, is allowed to continue.

Parallax Premiership Ratings: Green 7; Faubert 7, Upson 7, Neill 7, Ilunga 6; Behrami 7, Parker 8 (Mullins 6), Noble 7; Etherington 7 (Boa Morte 4), diMICHELE 8, Cole 7. Freddie Sears came on for Cole with a few minutes remaining, but not on for enough time to justify a rating.

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