Late Hitzlsperger strike keeps West Ham alive

Nervous Hammers come from behind to grab a point against Blackburn Rovers.

West Ham United 1 Blackburn Rovers 1

THOMAS HITLZSPERGER’S late leveller wiped out Jason Roberts first-half opener to leave the Hammers still hanging on for their Premier League lives writes STEVE BLOWERS.

But Avram Grant’s side remain rooted to the bottom of the table, three points adrift of 17th-placed Wigan Athletic, who they face next week in what is virtually a winner-takes-all clash at the DW Stadium, where surely only victory will save West Ham United from the dreaded drop.

And while the Hammers supporters will loyally head to the north-west in their droves next Sunday, they streamed away down Green Street reflecting on just what might have been had Robbie Keane and Carlton Cole converted the late sitters that came their way in the dying moments.

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Last Sunday’s disappointing defeat at Manchester City was the Hammers fifth straight loss and with just nine points left to play for, Grant made three changes as Manuel da Costa, Wayne Bridge and Cole returned in place of injured Matthew Upson plus substitutes James Tomkins and Keane.

A sixth reverse was just not an option for the Israeli’s side, who kicked off to a rousing chorus of ‘Bubbles’ from an East End crowd absolutely desperate to see their team still playing top-flight football, come August.

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And although the busy Morten Gamst Pedersen almost silenced them with an early long-ranger that was deflected just inches wide, with just five minutes on the clock Da Costa came so, so close to sending his side a giant stride along the rocky road to safety, when he met Hitzlsperger’s corner with a bullet header but the Norwegian was back on his own goal-line to nod clear.

Having trotted to victory over Bolton Wanderers last Saturday, Rovers had kicked off in 16th-spot, six points clear of their bottom-placed hosts. That rare win at Ewood Park was their first in a dozen attempts and manager Steve Kean also made a trio of changes as Pedersen, Mame Biram Diouf and David Hoilett replaced Phil Jones, Michel Salgado and substitute Benjani.

Ironically, with 12 minutes on the clock, the unthinkable happened, when Blackburn found themselves thinking that they were on their way to a second straight win as Jermaine Jones played in the overlapping Brett Emerton, who crossed into the six-yard box, where Roberts got in front of Da Costa to slide his side into the lead with his fourth goal of the campaign.

Midway through the half, Emerton found himself unpicking the Hammers defence, once more, but this time the Australian’s unplayable cross was just too high for the diving, lime-green booted Pedersen.

At the other end, Demba Ba nodded Bridge’s cross inches wide before Jonathan Spector also steered a header into the clutches of Paul Robinson and Hitzlsperger saw a trademark long-ranger deflected wide.

With 20 players mainly confined to the middle-third of the Upton Park pitch, it was turning into a frustrating afternoon for the entire East End and when referee Peter Walton declined to blow for quick-fire fouls on Hitzlsperger and then Cole, Da Costa’s protests earned him a fourth booking of the season.

Just before the break, Luis Boa Morte’s lofted, defence-spitting pass almost sent Ba clear but Christopher Samba had enough strength to hold off the Senegal striker, who managed to nudge the ball to the lively Freddie Sears, only for Robinson to save and then, with the last kick of the half, Danny Gabbidon - of all people – saw his shot blocked on the line.

Seconds after the restart, an unfortunate Boa Morte became the second player to be yellow carded following a tussle with the play-acting Pedersen and shortly afterwards Spector spectacularly curled a low 20-yarder just wide of Robinson’s right-hand post.

Certainly, this was a livelier West Ham and, on 50 minutes, Hitzlsperger scorched the keeper’s gloves from even longer distance before Keane came on for Boa Morte as Grant desperately went in search of a levelling lifeline.

And after Steven N’Zonzi forced Robert Green into a full-length parry Lars Jacobsen and Sears were replaced by Frederic Piquionne and the fit-again Jack Collison, whose entrance for his first game of the season was joyously greeted by an enthusiastic East End.

Ba again drilled wide before Rovers made a double-switch of their own with the introduction of Roque Santa Cruz and Keith Andrews for goal-scorer Roberts and David Hoilett, whose last act of the afternoon had been to tumble heavily under a challenge from the consequently cautioned Spector.

With four strikers on the pitch, West Ham simply had to create more chances and, after Ba nodded Cole’s cross inches over, they finally mustered that eventual equaliser with just 12 minutes remaining.

Once again, Cole was the creator and, after finding his route to goal blocked by a forest of legs, the patient England striker cleverly cut-back to Hitzlsperger, who squeezed a 20-yarder inside the base of Robinson’s left-hand post to finally give the Hammers hope.

Then with three minutes remaining, Keane only needed to apply a toe-nail to Piquionne’s low cross into the goalmouth and, in the dying seconds, Cole also found himself with the ball at his feet within similar range, but on both occasions it failed to end up in the net and only time will tell just how costly those misses will prove to be, come 5.45p.m. on Sunday 22 May.

Hammers: Green, Jacobsen (Piquionne 64), Bridge, Da Costa, Gabbidon, Boa Morte (Keane 55), Hitzlsperger Spector, Sears (Collison 64), Ba, Cole. Unused Subs: Boffin, Tomkins, Kovac, Hines,

Blackburn Rovers: Robinson, Olsson, Emerton, Hoilett (Andrews 69), Samba, Givet, Jones J, Diouf (Rochina 90+3), Pedersen, N’Zonzi, Roberts (Santa Cruz 69). Unused Subs: Bunn, Formica, Benjani, Hanley.

Referee: Peter Walton

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