Hammers heartbreak despite Green heroics
Robert Green was man of the match, but a late goal scuppered West Ham’s hopes
Arsenal 1 West Ham United 0
THE HEARTBROKEN Hammers came within just three agonising minutes of grinding out a gritty goalless draw at The Emirates Stadium writes STEVE BLOWERS
But just when Avram Grant’s men looked all set for a richly-deserved share of the spoils, Alex Song’s late, late header secured a victory for the Gunners that leaves the East Enders three points adrift of safety.
Coming into this match, the gulf between these two sides could barely have been greater with 18 places, 11 points and 21 goals separating bottom of-the table Hammers from their high-flying hosts up in the heady heights of second-spot.
For 87 minutes, however, the visitors had held their own thanks to a combination of dogged defending, clever counter-attacking and, crucially, gutsy goalkeeping by Robert Green.
Both teams had savoured Carling Cup success in midweek and, following their thrilling extra-time victory over Stoke City, West Ham made eight changes as Green, Lars Jacobsen, Danny Gabbidon, Herita Ilunga, Mark Noble, Valon Behrami, Frederic Piquionne and Victor Obinna each returned to Avram Grant’s 4-5-1 starting line-up.
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Equally, Arsenal, who had swept Newcastle United down the Tyne on Wednesday evening, had made nine switches from the side that had won 4-0 at St. James’s Park, with only Laurent Koscielny and Denilson surviving an Arsene Wenger re-shuffle that saw the big Guns of Cesc Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh and Samir Nasri return to the fold.
That quartet would be a handful for any team and the Hammers had to be on their toes in the early exchanges as Arshavin drilled wide and then a last-gasp Gabbidon tackle halted top-scorer Nasri in his tracks.
On 10 minutes, though, West Ham finally got the ball upfield and, when lone-striker Piquionne was upended on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area, Noble whipped in a curling free-kick that the relieved Lukasz Fabianski punched clear.
The next Hammers free-kick also created panic in the Gunners rearguard but Obinna’s cross just would not fall for Manuel Da Costa and, in the ensuing scramble, Gael Clichy managed to hack clear.
Former Gunner Luis Boa Morte also drilled over Fabianski’s right-hand angle from 18 yards as the visitors grew in confidence.
Green was finally called into serious action midway through the first-half, when Bacary Sagna’s cut-back was met by the onrushing Fabregas but the shocked Spaniard was left holding his head in his hands after the England keeper brilliantly clawed away his sizzling eight-yarder.
Ilunga and Song were then booked in quick-succession for late challenges on Sagna and Behrami as referee Mike Jones decided it was time to crack down on some of the challenges taking place on the greasy Gunners pitch.
Ten minutes before the break, Song found his timing out, once more, when his attempted long-ranger merely rolled on to the corner flag but, as the interval drew to a close, the Cameroon international rediscovered his shooting boots with a low, angled shot that Green parried aside.
And when Nasri floated over a right-wing corner with just seconds of the first-half remaining, the Hammers keeper was on hand again to tip over the soaring Sebastien Squillaci’s header.
Departing all-square at the break, West Ham United could justifiably have been pleased with their opening 45-minute shift and, indeed, only the well-placed Fabianski had prevented Noble - who had been loosely likened to Diego Maradona by Grant in midweek – from breaking the deadlock with a marauding run and fierce 18-yard shot that the Argentine legend would have unleashed with pride.
On 53 minutes, however, the Hammers had to rely on the woodwork to keep them in the contest, when Boa Morte was yellow-carded for sliding through Denilson and Nasri powered the consequent 35-yard free-kick onto Green’s crossbar.
With Arsenal turning up the heat, Fabregas and Nasri both forced Green into saves, before Theo Walcott stepped from the bench to replace Denilson for the final 25 minutes.
The England wide-boy wasted no time in showing Ilunga a clean pair heels but after burning into the Hammers area, the scorching substitute saw his low, angled shot crash back off the far post and into the gloves of the grateful Green.
In reply, Carlton Cole replaced Piquionne for the final quarter-hour and when Da Costa nodded down Noble’s well-flighted corner, the newly-arrived striker was just an agonising stud away from prodding home with his first touch.
With seven minutes remaining, the weaving Walcott was causing problems once again, but this time Green cleverly clawed away his deflected 18-yarder and, in a frantic finale the Hammers keeper performed more heroics to deny both Fabregas and Walcott in quick succession.
But with just those three minutes remaining, poor Green’s afternoon of hard graft was destined to count to nothing, when Gael Clichy comfortably outwitted late substitute Julien Faubert before inviting Song to power a close-range diving header into the net.
ARSENAL: Fabianski, Clichy, Sagna, Koscielny, Squillaci, Song, Fabregas, Denilson (Walcott 66), Arshavin (Bendtner 79), Nasri, Chamakh (Eboue 89). Unused subs: Szczesny, Rosicky, Vela, Djourou.
HAMMERS: Green, Jacobsen, Ilunga, Da Costa, Gabbidon, Behrami (Barrera 90), Boa Morte, Noble, Parker, Obinna (Faubert 86), Piquionne (Cole 73). Unused subs: Stech, Reid, Tomkins, Kovac.
Referee: Mike Jones. Attendance: 60,086.