Tuesday, 10 February 2009

West Ham v Manchester United (John Simkin)

The newspaper reports of the game against Manchester United will do doubt be dominated by the activities of their aging stars. The 35-year-old Ryan Giggs will rightly be praised for scoring in every Premier League season since the competition's inaugural campaign of 1992-93. Edwin van der Sar will also dominant the headlines with his 13th consecutive clean sheet in the league that sets a new British record.

The hacks will also go on about how the league leaders and arguably the best football team of the world were below their best. This is what they did when the Hammers achieved draws against Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. It seems to be beyond the logic of these journalists that teams are only as good as they are allowed to be. Despite the fact that they had an attack that included Ronaldo, Giggs, Tevez, Berbatov and Ronaldo, Green only had one save to make.

After the game, Gianfranco Zola said: "It was a close match. Unfortunately for us they have some great players and if you make a mistake they punish you." In truth, the goal followed a series of small errors that resulted in Green being beaten for the first time in 400 minutes.

In the 61st minute a harmless lob forward caused confusion between Collins and Neill and the former gave away a needless corner. Upson headed-out Giggs corner to Noble who tried to set-up a quick counter-attack. He lost the ball to Vidic, and the ball broke to Paul Scholes. Meanwhile, the rest of the defence had moved forward to catch United’s forwards offside. However, Neill walked rather than ran, and he played Giggs on, who gratefully received a delightful cross-field pass from Scholes.

With Neill rooted to the spot, Carlton Cole made a dash for Giggs. Unfortunately, instead of holding-up Giggs, he dived in and he veteran winger coolly side-stepped him and headed for the penalty area. Parker had also sensed the danger and he raced towards Giggs. He anticipated that Giggs would move the ball to his favoured left-foot, however, he saw Parker’s intended tackle and moved to his right. Behrami, who obviously expected Parker to stop Giggs in his tracks, failed to close him down and he was able to send a right-foot shot through a crowd of players and past Green into the bottom corner of the net.

Six small mistakes and two great pieces of skill caused the Hammers to be beaten by a single goal. However, it should not be forgotten that for the game was evenly matched. Upson and Collins restricted Tevez and Berbatov to the odd long-range shot.

Ilunga and Collison ably defended the left-flank and both Ronaldo and Giggs were forced to try their luck on the opposite wing. Here they found Behrami in inspired form and his protection of Neill was outstanding. His importance to the defensive set-up was illustrated when he was replaced by Diego Tristan in the 88th minute. Within sixty seconds Ronaldo took on Neill who stuck out a leg and brought the winger down. Dowd took pity on the hapless full-back and waved away his rightful claim for a penalty.

Carlton Cole posed a constant threat to Ferdinand and Vidic. In the 13th minute Cole ran onto an excellent through-ball from Noble. Ferdinand struggled to match his pace and was forced to hold onto his arm. Cole, unbalanced by Ferdinand’s tug attempted to lob the goalkeeper. This is a difficult thing to do against a tall goalkeeper like Edwin van der Sar and he was able to make a comfortable save. Most observers will claim that Cole should have hit the ball as hard as he could, but with Ferdinand holding onto him he would have found it virtually impossible to get any real power behind the shot.

Cole was even more impressive in the second-half. One moment in particular stands out in my mind. In the 59th minute Cole received the ball 30 years from goal. Even though Vidic had hold of his shirt, Cole was still strong enough to turn the central defender. With Cole heading for the United penalty area, Vidic decided to take a yellow-card by hauling him to the ground.

The problem for Cole is that he received very little support from Di Michele. Although the Italian was neat and tidy and successfully found his teammates with 29 of his 37 passes, he never posed a threat to the United defence. In fact, according to the Guardian’s chalkboard analysis, he only made one successful forward pass throughout the game. The other passes went either sideways or backwards.

According to Kevin McCarra: “The United method is to exhaust teams and then defeat them. There is such confidence in the passing that the opposition's lungs burn as they chase after the ball that is being withheld from them.” That never worked against West Ham who now seem to be one of the fittest teams in the league.

Savio came on for Noble in the 76th minute. One of the problems of bringing him on late is that he tries too hard to impress. Instead of keeping it simple he tries ambitious passes that at the moment are not coming off. As a result four of his fourteen passes did not reach a teammate. Hopefully, he will be given the opportunity to start in the game against Middlesbrough. With Neill playing in Japan for Australia on Wednesday, it might be a good idea to give him a rest for next week’s game.

Green: Good reaction save when Scholes shot that was going wide was diverted by Ronaldo. Had no chance with Giggs’ goal. (7)

Neill: Nearly 25% of his passes went astray but did manage to get two shots on target. (6)

Collins: Managed to get in the way of most things thrown at him (8)

Upson: Along with Collins kept Berbatov and Tevez fairly quiet. (8)

Ilunga: His reputation goes before him and Giggs and Ronaldo spent their time working on Neill’s failings. (7)

Behrami: Another all-action performance who provided excellent cover for Neill. The danger of Ronaldo meant he could make few forages upfield.

Parker: Exemplary game except for the failed tackle against Giggs that led to the goal. (8)

Noble: Lovely pass to Cole offered West Ham best chance of scoring. However, overall, his passing was not up to his normal standard with a 25% failure-rate. (6)

Collison: Doubled-up with Illunga against Giggs and still found time to help the attack. (8)

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