Monday, 16 February 2009

West Ham v Middlesbrough (John Simkin)

In my report on the Arsenal game I argued that the real test will be when Zola is forced to make changes to a team that was performing well. I raised doubts about the quality of the players in the squad who will need to come in if anyone gets injured.

In the game against Middlesbrough, Zola was forced to replace Behrami with Boa Morte. This was a strange decision since he could have called upon Savio. I know he is untried at this level but surely this would have been a better option than Boa Morte, who has shown time and time again that he can no longer deliver the goods in the premier league.

The inclusion of Boa Morte considerably weakened our midfield, as over the last few weeks, Behrami has played a vital role in winning the ball from the opposition. Boa Morte is not only very poor as this task, he consistently gives the ball away and even against a very moderate Middlesbrough side, we found ourselves for long periods without the ball.

To make matters worse, Cole injured his left ankle early in the match and was virtually a passenger before he was eventually taken off in the 33rd minute. Therefore, for most of the game we were without two of our key players.

West Ham started off badly and a mistake by Collison and a poor clearance from Upson led to Johnson shooting just wide. This was followed by a period where the Hammers had difficulty keeping hold of the ball. In the 10th minute Di Michele was easily brushed off the ball by Digard and his cross found Downing, whose shot from 25 yards out flashed wide of Green's left post.

After good work from Collison in the 16th minute, Noble attempted to curl the ball past Jones but it instead went straight to the goalkeeper. A couple of minutes later Noble had a much better effort tipped around the post. The corner led to a second and from that a powerful drive by Collins forced Jones to make another good save.

It seemed it was just a matter of time before the Hammers took the lead but after a Middlesbrough breakaway, O’Neil put in a great cross that just escaped Collins and Downing arrived late to head in at the far post.

With Cole a passenger, it was left to Di Michele to lead the fight-back. In the 24th minute he cleverly flicked the ball over Digard head before volleying from the edge of the box, but it flew just wide of Jones' left post. On occasions like this he looks like a good acquisition, however, for most of the time he struggles to cope with the speed and power of the English game.

Just after the half-hour mark Di Michele was joined by another foreign import that seems well past his sell-by date. It is difficult to see what Diego Tristan has to offer the team. He rarely beat the Middlesbrough central defenders in the air and his first touch is lamentable. He is a ponderous runner with the ball and panics when in sight of the goal.

Despite the weakness of our strikers, the West Ham midfield drove the team forward and in the 38th minute Boa Morte managed to find a teammate with a pass. Noble miss-hit the ball 12 yards out, but a deflection made the save difficult for Jones, who could only push the ball weakly into the path of Collison, who instead of passing it to an unmarked Di Michelle standing in front of the goal, he wildly shot over the bar.

Just before half-time a Middlesbrough free-kick resulted in a quick breakaway. Di Michele’s path was blocked and he carefully teed it up for the late-arriving Tristan. It looked like a certain goal but Tristan visibly panicked and he blasted the ball well over the bar.

James Collins later said: “We were shocking in the first half, terrible, the worst we’ve been for a long time. We’ve been playing so well and to go out and perform like that we were speechless at half-time.”

Scott Parker and Mark Noble both had games where they failed to dominate the midfield. It was Stewart Downing, who abandoned his usual winger’s role on the left, to play just behind Afonso Alves, that was the influential player on the pitch. Despite the fact that we played so badly, we could, and should, have been 3-1 up at the break.

In the 48th minute Zola brought on Sears for Boa Morte. After the game Zola said that: “The first 50 minutes was the worst we have played recently… Their bodies were there, but their minds sometimes weren’t… It was not near our standards. After that we picked up a bit.” I disagree. Unfortunately, the arrival of Sears did not make much difference to the performance of the team.

West Ham increasingly resorted to the long-ball game in the second-half. This was absurd as David Wheater won everything in the air. This is rarely a profitable strategy even when Carlton Cole is in the team. However, with Diego Tristan playing up front, it bordered on the ridiculous. For the first time since the game against Spurs on 8th December, the Hammers began to look desperate.

It was not until the 72nd minute that West Ham created their next chance. Illunga, who was West Ham’s best attacker, overlapped on the left and after reaching the byline he crossed to the unmarked Di Michele, who faced with an open goal, scooped the ball over the bar from eight yards out. It was probably the team’s worse miss of the season.

This was immediately followed by Zola bringing on Savio for the disappointing Noble. Although his passes are not always accurate, Savio does everything at speed and he helps to create a sense of urgency. He is also a great deliverer of crosses and his corners were a marked improvement on those provided by Noble.

In the 81st minute O’Neil used his hand to stop the ball reaching Savio. After the booking of O’Neil, the Ugandan-born, German striker, whipped in a dangerous free-kick that was missed by the big men on the edge of the penalty area and Ilunga, running-in behind, headed home from close-range.

The confidence of the Middlesbrough team seeped away but despite the pressure from the revitalized Hammers, they could only manage one more shot and that was from Sears who fired over from the edge of the box.

After the game, Zola said “Boro were organized and caused as problems. It is a good lesson for us.” He then added: “I am delighted for Ilunga. There are not many full-backs in the league better than him.” There is no doubt that Ilunga is one of the best loan signings of the season. However, on the few occasions we have seen him, Diego Tristan, seems to fall into a very different category altogether.

Player Ratings

Green: Made some excellent saves from Downing and Alves. (7)

Neill: For the first time in several games he was not targeted by the opposition. Benefited by the fact that Downing played in the centre instead of wide left. (6)

Collins: At fault for the goal but was generally solid. (6)

Upson: A poor clearance in the opening minutes led to Johnson shooting just wide. After that, he comfortable dealt with Alves. (6)

Ilunga: His overlapping on the left caused constant problems for the Middlesbrough defence. Capped off a fine performance with the equalizing goal. (8)

Collison: Lively as always but it was a terrible miss in the 38th minute. (6)

Parker: A very quiet afternoon for a player who usually dominates midfield. (5)

Noble: Another disappointing performance from a player who could be carrying an injury. (5)

Boa Morte: Tried hard as usual but is still to achieve the standards he regularly showed at Fulham. His passing was extremely poor. The worst moment was when he was under no pressure at all he passed the ball to the centre of a group of three Middlesbrough players. (4)

Di Michele: Showed some nice touches but is still too easily knocked off the ball. Probable the miss of the season when he blazed over in the 72nd minute. (6)

Cole: Injured early on and it was foolish to keep him on the pitch for so long. (5)


Tristan (35th): He rarely beat the Middlesbrough central defenders in the air and his first touch is lamentable. He is a ponderous runner with the ball and panics when in sight of the goal. (4)

Sears (49th): Fairly lively but unfortunately none of the real chances came to him. Needs to play from the beginning if he is to show what he can do. (6)

Savio (74th): Despite the injury to Behrami he was left on the bench. He was also ignored when Cole had to come off and he was only given the last 16 minutes to show what he could do. A good dead ball kicker, his corners were a marked improvement on those provided by Noble. Provided the cross for Illunga’s equalizing goal. (7)

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