Hammers stare into the abyss of relegation after dismal home defeat

West Ham crashed to their third league defeat on the trot as they dropped to second from bottom in the Premier League.

West Ham 1 Aston Villa 2

BILLED AS the ‘Best of British’ it turned out to be the ‘Worst of West Ham’ after a disastrous defeat that leaves Avram Grant’s men in 19th-place and two points from safety, with just five games to play writes STEVE BLOWERS

Both teams arrived to a patriotic marching band but the Hammers left with very little Hope and absolutely no Glory after Robbie Keane’s second-minute opener was wiped out by Darren Bent’s first-half equaliser and Gabriel Agbonlahor’s stoppage-time winner.

Following their three-goal defeat at Bolton last Saturday, Grant had made a quartet of changes as Lars Jacobsen, Victor Obinna, Carlton Cole and Gary O’Neil came in for Scott Parker (achilles), James Tomkins plus substitutes Frederic Piquionne and Demba Ba.

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But West Ham looked like they were going to shrug off the absence of Parker - their talismanic, tiger-in-the-tackle – by taking a second-minute lead after goalscorer Keane had forced the first corner of the game.

For when the visitors failed to clear Mark Noble’s subsequent flag-kick, ex-Villain Thomas Hitzlsperger nodded the ball back in a danger zone now hastily vacated by both Ashley Young and Richard Dunne, and that left the unmarked Irishman with all the time in the world to lash the ball past the helplessly exposed Brad Friedel.

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With the Villa defence still smarting from the fact that there had been no offside flag, Cole then saw his shot charged down by former Hammer James Collins and the breaking England striker also had a decent shout for a penalty waved away by referee Mark Halsey after he was nudged over by the retreating Dunne.

As the quarter-hour mark approached, a maddened Manuel Da Costa had to be replaced by Danny Gabbidon, following a collision with Darren Bent but again that looked to have done little to knock West Ham out of their stride as Cole unleashed a cracking low 18-yard half-volley that Friedel finger-tipped behind, before then gathering an Obinna screamer.

After last Sunday’s victory over Newcastle, Gerard Houllier had made a couple of changes as ex-hammer Nigel Reo-Coker and Emile Heskey came in for substitutes Agbonlahor and Jean Makoun.

Despite witnessing his side concede that quick-fire Keane opener, the Frenchman must have sensed there was still hope when Ashley Young ripped an angled shot into the side-netting, before letting fly with a low 25-yarder that Robert Green grabbed at the second attempt.

Midway through the half, Bent thought that he had notched his 17th goal of the season, when he nodded home Stewart Downing’s deep cross but the eagle-eyed Mr Halsey came to West Ham’s rescue, blowing for a push on Jacobsen.

Sadly for the Hammers it was only to prove brief respite, for nine minutes before the break, Bent repaid another slice of his massive �24m transfer fee, when he got in front of Wayne Bridge to head Luke Young’s centre beyond Green after the hitherto anonymous Emile Heskey had robbed the napping Noble in the West Ham area and nudged the ball to Ashley Young.

The England striker’s equaliser was his sixth goal for Villa and if Grant – who was sitting up in the stands serving the final match of his two-game touchline ban - had found the closing stages of the first half positively uncomfortable, then the second period was destined to prove equally edgy.

Within seconds of the restart, the barnstorming Bent forced Green to claw out his angled shot from the base of his near post, before Dunne saw his goal-bound header hooked off the line by Cole.

Green then had to be at his brilliant best again to paw Ashley Young’s curling, 20-yard free-kick around his left-hand upright and with West Ham now firmly on the back foot, the busy Hammers keeper then saved Kyle Walker’s angled shot, too.

Curiously, Grant’s response was to ignore his experienced bench and replace Victor Obinna with young Zavon Hines and the Israeli was soon back on the phone again organising the arrival of Ba after O’Neil was stretchered off following a crunching tackle by the heavily barracked Reo-Coker.

By now, West Ham were struggling to get the ball out of their own half and when they did, it was quickly returned with pace and purpose by the Midlanders, who clearly sensed that they could turn one point into three.

With just a quarter-hour remaining, Green’s scuffed drop-kick led to Ashley Young curling inches wide and as Houllier tried to turn up the heat, the tiring legs of Heskey were replaced by the fresher limbs of Agbonlahor.

Although Hines, Ba, Hitzlsperger and Cole had rare half-chances to turn the tide during the closing stages, in the final reckoning, it was the visitors, who got an inevitable win.

With the match entering stoppage time, Green brilliantly beat away Downing’s low shot, only for Man-of-the-Match, Ashley Young, to cruelly cross the loose ball back into the Hammers area, where Agbonlahor claimed his fifth goal of the season to give Villa victory and ninth-spot, while West Ham departed knowing that they now face tricky trips to both Chelsea and Manchester City.

Hammers: Green, Jacobsen, Bridge, Upson, Da Costa (Gabbidon 14), O’Neil (Ba 62), Noble, Obinna (Hines 58), Hitzlsperger, Keane, Cole. Unused Subs: Boffin, Boa Morte, Spector, Piquionne.

Aston Villa: Friedel, Walker, Young L, Collins, Dunne, Young A, Downing, Reo-Coker, Petrov, Heskey (Agbonlahor 77), Bent. Unused Subs: Marshall, Pir�s, Albrighton, Makoun, Clark, Cuellar.

Referee: Mark Halsey.

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