Heartbreak for Hammers in extra-time defeat
West Ham took a first half lead, but a stirring fight back from Birmingham City earned the Blues a place at Wembley.
Birmingham City 3 West Ham United 1 (after extra time – 2-1 90 min)
IT PROVED a Brum night in Birmingham for Avram Grant’s heartbroken Hammers, who had looked Wembley-bound until the Blues mounted a stirring second half comeback writes STEVE BLOWERS.
Carlton Cole’s fortuitous first-leg winner at Upton Park had already put his side in the driving seat and, when the England striker netted a simply brilliant opener on the half-hour mark, the wheels looked to have well and truly come off of the Blues bandwagon.
But ex-Hammer Lee Bowyer ignited the Midlanders’ revival on the hour before Roger Johnson forced extra-time and Craig Gardner sealed victory over the shell-shocked Londoners.
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Following his side’s draw at Everton on Saturday, Grant had made just one enforced change as suspended top-scorer Frederic Piquionne made way for Cole, while new-boy Gary O’Neil took his place on the Hammers bench.
Desperate to protect their one-goal advantage from the first-leg, West Ham soon found themselves looking to silence the boisterous Blues’ fans as the zippy Zavon Hines forced Ben Foster into an early full-length save.
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And on ten minutes the young striker was sent cantering clear by Mark Noble’s precision pass but the City keeper was able to parry the angled 15-yard effort to safety.
Likewise, the white-booted Wayne Bridge invited Cole to gallop away but the fit-again forward hurriedly volleyed the ball over Foster’s right-hand angle and, midway through the half, Cole’s dangerous cross into the six-yard was headed over his own bar by Liam Ridgewell.
The Blues had also found themselves under pressure at Old Trafford on Saturday and following that five-goal defeat at Old Trafford, Alex McLeish had made a quintet of changes as Bowyer, Gardner, Martin Jiranek, Seb Larsson, and Cameron Jerome came in for Jordon Mutch, the cup-tied David Bentley plus substitutes David Murphy, Keith Fahey and Alexander Hleb.
But apart from seeing a couple of efforts bravely charged down by the visitors’ determined defence and Gardner try his luck with a speculative 25-yarder, the Blues had shown little desire to get themselves back on the Wembley trail.
So it was no surprise, when Cole gave West Ham the lead on 31 minutes with a spectacular strike.
Collecting a throw-in from Bridge, the England striker waltzed between the hesitant Barry Ferguson and Gardner before curling a tremendous 25-yarder beyond the outstretched left glove of Foster and inside the right-hand upright to claim his seventh goal of the season.
As the predictable “Wembley” chants rang down from the 3,803 ecstatic East Enders packed behind Robert Green’s goal, the goal-scorer almost turned goal-maker, when he crossed into the area, where the stretching Hines toe-poked the ball onto the post.
In reply, Matt Derbyshire saw his fierce effort beaten away by the Hammers keeper before Larsson curled a free-kick into his arms and Derbyshire headed meekly wide to leave the Blues deservedly departing to boos at the break.
After a one-dimensional opening half, Birmingham needed to dig deep into their locker and the arrival of the towering, six-foot, eight-inch Nikola Zigic in place of Derbyshire certainly gave them a new focus.
On 52 minutes, Gardner sent a low 18-yarder thudding onto the base of Green’s right-hand upright and back across goal to safety, while Jerome wastefully fired high and wide and Bridge survived crazed cries for handball.
Suddenly, this was a whole new ball game and, as the hour-mark approached, the Hammers failed to clear Larsson’s inswinging right-wing corner and Bowyer sent a 12-yard screamer ripping into the net to give City a vital lifeline.
The ex-Hammer’s thumping third goal of the campaign ignited the home fans amongst the crowd of 27,519 and after Gardner was booked for fouling James Tomkins, Barry Ferguson almost had them on their feet again, when he drilled a low 18-yarder back through the pack but the alert Green turned the effort aside.
That was the cue for the fresh legs of Kieron Dyer to replace the tiring Hines but still the Blues pressed and, when Larsson sent over another tricky corner, Jerome saw his point-blank header tipped over by Green.
But when Bowyer curled the consequent flag-kick back into the penalty area, Johnson got in front of Matthew Upson to send a firm, downward header past Luis Boa Morte on the line to bring the tie all-square, with his third goal of the campaign.
Moments later, Jerome broke and was finally foiled in a good old-fashioned goalmouth melee and after Dyer and Ferguson were booked for a late scrap, the fiery Scot almost settled it in stoppage-time with a low 18-yard effort that Green tipped onto the base of his right-hand post.
West Ham’s relief at forcing another half-hour, was short-lived for just three minutes into extra-time, skipper Stephen Carr steam-rollered through Dyer on the halfway line and drove deep in Hammers territory, where he squared to the accompanying Gardner, whose 20-yarder flew through the clutches of the groping Green before nestling in the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
In reply, Jonathan Spector’s Carling Cup shooting boots deserted him as Foster saved his low effort and then Scott Parker twisted and turned before clipping over, while Dyer somehow volleyed Julien Faubert’s inviting cross into the disbelieving West Ham fans from all of eight yards.
Benni McCarthy came on for Spector at the start of the second period of extra-time but with West Ham needing just one goal to get to Wembley on away goals, the best they could muster was Cole’s acrobatic volley that Foster gratefully smothered on his line to ensure that the Blues and not the Hammers head down Wembley Way to face Arsenal on February 27th.
BLUES: Foster, Carr, Ridgewell, Johnson, Jiranek, Larsson (Beausejour 100), Bowyer, Ferguson, Gardner (Murphy 100), Jerome, Derbyshire (Zigic h/t). Unused: Taylor, Phillips, Fahey, Hleb.
HAMMERS: Green, Faubert, Bridge, Tomkins, Upson, Hines (Dyer 71), Parker, Spector (McCarthy e/t h/t), Boa Morte (O’Neil 82), Cole. Unused: Boffin, Reid, Gabbidon, Sears.
Referee: Howard Webb (South Yorkshire) Attendance: 27,519.