Cole freak goal gives Hammers narrow lead

West Ham will take a 2-1 lead to St Andrews for the second leg of their Carling Cup semi-final with Birmingham City.

West Ham United 2 Birmingham City 1

HALFWAY THROUGH this two-legged semi-final, it is advantage West Ham United following an enthralling East End evening that now sees Avram Grant’s side head to St Andrew’s in a fortnight’s time with a precious one-goal lead writes STEVE BLOWERS.

Mark Noble’s first-half opener deservedly put the dominant Hammers firmly in the driving seat, before former Upton Park trainee Liam Ridgewell’s fourth goal of the season looked to have turned the tide after the break.

And when Victor Obinna was recklessly red-carded on the hour, the Wembley dream looked to be turning into a nightmare for the under-pressure Israeli.

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But in the end it was bemused Ben Foster, who will have sleepless nights for weeks to come after substitute Carlton Cole stepped from the bench to bag an unlikely sixth goal of the campaign with a surreal, soft winner.

The Hammers - twice-beaten finalists - had sent Oxford United, Sunderland, Stoke City and Manchester United packing on the way to this semi-final, and following Saturday’s FA Cup victory over Barnsley, the Hammers made a quartet of changes as left-back Matthew Upson, Freddie Sears, Scott Parker and Frederic Piquionne replaced Pablo Barrera plus substitutes Zavon Hines, Luis Boa Morte and Frank Nouble.

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Roared on by an enthusiastic, expectant East End crowd, the Hammers set about the Blues from the opening second and Sears soon sent a side-footer sizzling just inches wide, before Upson marauded upfield and forced Foster to claw his angled shot ball around the near post.

On 13 minutes, though, Birmingham’s defences were inevitably breached, when Mark Noble started and finished the move that saw West Ham take their first, tentative steps down Wembley Way.

Collecting from Parker, the midfielder burst into the Blues area before sending over a deep cross towards Frederic Piquionne, whose first header was blocked before Jonathan Spector had his initial effort thwarted, too.

But after the Frenchman took a second unsuccessful bite, the American then hooked his second shot back across the danger zone, where the lurking Noble claimed his third goal of the season with a rising, angled screamer that almost decapitated Scott Dann and Foster.

Midway through the half, Foster produced an acrobatic save to tip away Spector’s 25-yarder and from the consequent corner, the visiting keeper was then forced to palm over James Tomkins’ point-blank header.

And still with only half-an-hour on the clock, another pacy, purposeful break saw Obinna force the busy Foster into a desperate parry, while Sears chested down and blasted wide, before also curling over from range.

Winners in 1963, the Blues had beaten Rochdale, MK Dons, Brentford and Aston Villa in the previous rounds and, after tasting FA Cup success at Millwall on Saturday, too, Alex McLeish made eight switches upon his side’s quick return to the capital as Foster, Ridgewell, Stephen Carr, Roger Johnson, Sebastian Larsson, Keith Fahey, Barry Ferguson and Cameron Jerome all earned recalls.

But apart from an early Craig Gardner shot that Robert Green easily fielded, the visitors spent the entire first-half firmly on the back foot as eager central defenders Tomkins and Winston Reid hungrily gobbled up anything intended for service-starved, sole-striker, Jerome.

City’s cause was not helped by the departure of Dann on a stretcher at the interval and that saw David Murphy step from the bench for the start of a second half that began encouragingly for the visitors, who forced a couple of early corners, while Gardner also fired a low free-kick wide.

On 55 minutes, Sears hooked Jerome’s goal-bound header off the line and whereas West Ham had started the first period like a runaway locomotive, the moment had now come for the City express to work up a head of steam.

Seconds later, another Larsson corner created panic in the home ranks and this time Ridgewell got in front of Reid to equalise with a thumping close-range header that darkened the mood around Upton Park.

And, as the hour-mark approached, the gloom deepened even further.

Certainly, the consequently red-carded Obinna did little for Nigerian-Swedish relations, when he back-heeled his studs into Larsson’s painful pelvic region as the pair prepared to challenge for Upson’s routine throw-in.

Fortunately for Mrs Larsson there appears to be little long-term damage and the Swede was soon crossing into the danger zone, where Murphy got in front of Tomkins to glance his header just a whisker wide of the far post.

With his now depleted side having lost all attacking impetus, Grant replaced Piquionne and Sears with the fresh legs of Cole and Hines and that double substitution was destined to have a telling impact.

For with just 12 minutes remaining, the tireless Spector embarked on a rare break down the right flank before crossing towards the lone claret and blue figure of Cole in the City area.

The chance appeared to have escaped the England striker, who could only scuff his shot through Johnson’s legs, but it was still enough to wrong-foot the red-faced, falling Foster, who groped at thin air as the ball trickled over the line to give Grant’s ten-men that telling advantage ahead of the second leg on 26 January.

Hammers: Green, Faubert, Reid, Tomkins, Upson, Sears (Hines 73), Noble (Kovac 89), Parker, Spector, Obinna, Piquionne (Cole 73) Unused Subs: Boffin, Boa Morte, Nouble, Spence

Birmingham City: Foster, Carr, Ridgewell, Dann (Murphy 46), Johnson, Larsson (Zigic 87), Ferguson, Gardner, Hleb (Beausejour 83), Fahey, Jerome Unused Subs: Taylor, Derbyshire, Mutch, Jiranek

Referee: Phil Dowd.

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