West Ham United went into the weekend’s game against Tottenham Hotspur with the unwanted statistic of having the worst goal difference in the league. Marooned at the bottom of the table, the Hammers faced a side they had failed to beat since ‘Lasagne Gate’ in May 2006. But the home team made a mockery of such dire statistics by beating their local rivals 1-0 through Frederic Piquionne’s first half header. A jubilant Upton Park celebrated their fist league win of the season joyously and Avram Grant hailed the team’s progression. “We will get better and better.” Like many of the fans he will know point to next month’s fixture list which includes home ties against Fulham and Newcastle United.
Results breed confidence
Football can be a simple game especially when trusted clichés such as these can be trotted out. A hard fought draw at Stoke and a League Cup victory at Sunderland, breaking their cycle of away games without a win, had restored confidence. Some players additionally suggested that negative media coverage had spurred them on. Regardless of the motivating factors, the whole team played with a belief hitherto unseen this season. From Victor Obinna to Luis Boa Morte, every player was sure of their role and few mistakes were made. Danny Gabbidon played out of position and faced the daunting task of marking Aaron Lennon. Yet as a makeshift left-back he nullified the threat posed by the winger and supported the attack when possible. Cries of ‘Ole’ are rarely heard at the Boleyn Ground but rang around the stands as the team neatly kept possession in the first half. Although Tottenham had their opportunities, the belief of the team and the crowd never abated.
Cole may continue to warm the bench
Piquionne and Obinna grabbed a goal each at the Stadium of Light and duly retained their starting places for this derby. It was a bold move from Grant who decided to leave out Carlton Cole, a forward who has been an assumed starter for over two seasons. The two new signings patently enjoy a good working relationship and were invariably too much for Spurs’ defensive partnership of Vedran Corluka and Sebastien Bassong. The opposition’s injury concerns were West Ham’s gain as Piquionne prevailed in the air, winning headers and exhibiting a delicate touch. From the outset he flicked on balls for Obinna who dribbled clear only to shoot wide. Piquionne was particularly impressive, often playing as an auxiliary winger at times. West Ham won 14 corners on the day and a healthy portion of those arrived in the first 30 minutes. Unsurprisingly the deadlock was broken from a Mark Noble corner which was met decisively by the Frenchman who headed the ball powerfully into the far corner. Cole made an appearance in the second half and may benefit from this renewed competition.
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Reflexes reprise Green
West Ham profited in the initial stages by switching their play from the direct to the intricate. Spurs by contrast seemed unwilling to search for their lone front man, Peter Crouch, directly. Instead they opted to search for that one defence splitting ball to produce a gilt edged chance. This occurred after the restart as Tom Huddlestone went through on goal but was a casualty of his own nonchalance, scooping his shot over the crossbar. The away team was accordingly reduced to strike from long range through Rafael van der Vaart and Jermaine Jenas. Robert Green made an excellent save from the Dutchman’s early shot and never looked back. He made a superb reflex save to direct Luka Modric’s goal bound volley onto the bar. Tottenham improved their possession and presence in the second period but their shots on target were largely tame. Green, who had consulted the club’s chaplain this week, glanced at the press box after the final whistle and unleashed an uncompromising straight arm gesture. A defiant Green prompted this response from Grant: “Emotion is good, if you take it in the right way.” It appears the FA who are reviewing Green’s conduct will do just that.
Manuel da Costa was the real man of the match
For his diligent work, incisive build up play and winning goal, the announcer named Piquionne as the man of the match. Yet as Spurs ramped up the pressure in the final stages, da Costa reigned supreme. The former Fiorentina centre-back had missed the majority of the season so far through injury but made a welcome return to action at the Britannia Stadium last week. Faced with the unenviable task of marking Crouch, he triumphed, rarely letting the English international win an aerial contest. The Portuguese defender has a fantastic leap, an important trait for any central defender. He is also a cultured player, frequently spraying accurate long range passes to the front men and striding forward from the back. Equally impressive was his ability to anticipate the opposition’s passing, thereby making pre-emptive challenges before Tottenham’s attackers could control the ball.
Is Grant a masterful tactician or a lucky gaffer? It seems few pundits can agree on this pertinent question when evaluating his time at Chelsea and various cup runs. On Saturday, however, his tactics were spot on. He may have been tempted to field a 4-3-3 formation which was played in his absence at Stoke. To counter Tottenham’s five man midfield, he opted for a fluid 4-4-2 which retained its shape defensively. When Redknapp made a host of substitutions and reverted to the home side’s formation, Grant responded by introducing Cole and pushing Obinna to the left flank. A 4-5-1 formation ensued which arguably precipitated long spells of Tottenham possession but the home side remained composed, absorbing that pressure. For a game that was likened to a “basketball match” by Redknapp it was crucial to temper the tempo of the encounter as the final whistle neared.