Monday, April 20, 2009

Tristan's Handy*

Aston Villa v West Ham United, Villa Park, Birmingham, Saturday April 18 2009, 3pm.

Dead Kenny's annual journey to the Villa Park away game often involves more hope than expectation, with a narrow defeat in a scrappy game the median outcome, so fortification was required beforehand in The Wellington, where met up with Dave R, Basingstoke Paul, Big Ray and a sizeable Hammers support contingent, and real ales were quaffed and musings made on a season that is turning out significantly better than it might have done.

Indeed, back in December when the sides last met in a match shown live on Setanta Sports, the Hammers were hovering perilously over the relegation trapdoor, lacking conviction under the unproven tutelage of rookie gaffer Zola, while a victorious Villa looked set fair for Champions League qualification at the expense of better fancied sides like Arsenal. Four months later and a consistent second half of the season has seen West Ham pull clear of relegation torment and have realistic aspirations of Europa Cup qualification, while just one point in six games has seen Villa fall away dramatically from the Champions League placings to be just two places ahead of the Irons before the game kicked off.

West Ham started the game in more positive fashion than is the norm for away encounters, with a lack of composure in the penalty area preventing youngster Junior Stanislas from converting good approach play into goals. Trouble was, we were also looking very vulnerable at the back, with Robert Green having to look sharp on several occasions, and the home side's second substantial goal attempt was converted by Emile Heskey following a sequence of clumsy defensive work from an unusually wobbly back four. Villa steadily gained in confidence and threat as the half wore on, prompting Zola to make an atypical early tactical change, taking off James Collins for Keiron Dyer to partner the industrious Mark Noble in midfield, with Lucas Neill moving back to his regular full-back slot, allowing the impressive Tomkins to move into central defence alongside England international Matthew Upson.

The second half remained relatively open, with the Hammers working hard and gaining a reasonable share of the ball only to find attacking moves petering out in the final third, the veteran strikeforce of Diego Tristan and David diMichele struggling to retain possession against a resolute Villa defence. Many Hammers fans were crying out for Zola to sort things out, but instead of taking off the hapless Tristan it was DiMichele and Stanislas who made way for youngsters Savio and Sears. The extra movement from the young lads seemed to unsettle the Villa rearguard and Hammers started to dominate proceedings until who else but the hitherto negligible Tristan's head steered Dyer's drive into the net for a just-about-deserved equaliser. From this point, West Ham looked the more likely to edge in front, although Villa had a penalty shout which was the far side of your correspondent's viewpoint so, to quote Mr Wenger, I deed not see it. Given that Villa beat us in December with the flukiest deflection in the history of the game ever, no-one should feel sorry for them.

Decent day's work for the Hammers then, given that of the six starting players in offensive positions only Noble could be considered a normal first choice, while for Villa, as the away support mercilessly chided, Champions League they *are* having a laugh. Looks like both sides will be limping towards the season climax, Hammers literally and Villa metaphorically.

Parallax Premiership Player Ratings: Green 7; Tomkins 7, Collins 5 (Dyer 5), Upson 6, Ilunga 5; Stanislas 6 (Savio 6), Neill 6, NOBLE 7, Boa Morte 6; Di Michele 6 (Sears 6), Tristan 5.

*with apologies to the gentleman author Tristam Shandy.

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