Gabriel Agbonlahor scored a dramatic stoppage-time winner as Aston Villa to ease their relegation fears and put West Ham deep in danger.The 2-1 win for Villa at Upton Park put them over the 40-point barrier – traditionally a mark of safety in the English Premier League.
The Hammers scored after only two minutes through loan man Robbie Keane, but – once Darren Bent equalised in the first half – Villa were the better side and missed a raft of chances before substitute Agbonlahor headed home from close range in the 91st minute.
West Ham had declared this game a celebration of ‘The Best of British’, but it was an Irishman who got them off to a flying start when Keane put the home side in front.
Villa’s defence twice failed to clear a corner and when German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger headed the ball back into the penalty area, the striker received it in an onside position with his back to goal, swivelled, and hit his shot past goalkeeper Brad Friedel from close range.
That gave the Hammers plenty of confidence, and they went close to scoring a second.
Villa defender Luke Young had to make a diving challenge to prevent Carlton Cole finding the back of the net after Keane sent him in on goal, and the England striker was then denied only when Friedel went charging out of his area to clear.
Cole was also thwarted when Richard Dunne barged him over just inside the penalty area, but referee Mark Halsey waved away West Ham’s claims for a foul.
Cole was thriving on the service he was getting, and had another low shot turned round the post by Friedel in the 21st minute.
But Villa then started to get back into the game.
Ashley Young’s long shot was held by Hammers goalkeeper Robert Green at the second attempt, and Darren Bent was unlucky to have an effort ruled out when he headed home Stewart Downing’s cross in the 24th minute but was harshly penalised for a push on Lars Jacobsen.
But Bent was not to be denied too long.
In the 36th minute, West Ham were architects of their own misfortune as Mark Noble dithered on the ball in his own area and was tackled by Emile Heskey.
Ashley Young fed the loose ball to namesake Luke, whose curling cross was ideal for Bent to steer past Green with a well-placed header.
Villa took the game to West Ham after the break, with Bent and then Kyle Walker forcing good saves from Green.
The home side were penned inside their own penalty area for long spells, and Cole had to clear a Dunne header off the line.
Ashley Young had a vicious, swerving free-kick tipped around the post, and another fierce Bent shot was deflected narrowly wide.
West Ham were struggling to get back into the game and were not helped when Gary O’Neil was taken off on a stretcher with what looked like an ankle injury.
Still Villa pressed, and Ashley Young shot high and wide from a good position on 70 minutes.
Bent should have scored another goal after a great run and cutback from Walker, but fluffed his shot from close range.
The Hammers were reduced to attacking on the break, but Hitzlsperger hit one shot well wide and Cole hooked another over the bar.
But then came the killer blow, when Ashley Young curled in a cross from the right and Agbonlahor – who had only been on for 14 minutes – headed past Green from close range to send the Villa fans into raptures.
West Ham’s supporters, meanwhile, looked distraught – as well they might be with games at Chelsea and Manchester City to come and a two-point gap to safety.