West Ham fans should have gone to Aintree
It was another miserable day at the Reebok for the Hammers on Saturday.
As the Hammers fans crawled up the M6 amid the Grand National traffic on Saturday morning, perhaps it would have been a good idea to take the same turn-off and make their way to Aintree.
Because West Ham fell at the first fence in their annual disaster at the Reebok and a couple more performances like this and the Premier League will be erecting the screens around the Hammers survival hopes and putting them out of their misery.
There were absolutely no excuses. Manager Avram Grant had a fully-fit squad to choose from, they had opposition with one eye on next week’s FA Cup semi-final and yet they put in as abject and pathetic a first-half performance as they have throughout this dismal, underachieving season.
Grant sat helpless in the stand thanks to a touchline ban, but he had already played a part in sabotaging his team’s chances by leaving out top scorer Carlton Cole and right back Lars Jacobsen.
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Freddie Piquionne, so poor last week as a substitute, somehow got a start and was so ineffective he may as well have been selling programmes on the right touchline.
At right back was centre half James Tomkins, who had already proved that he was not up to the task when Matty Etherington gave him the runaround in the cup quarter-final – Martin Petrov did the same here and it was another disastrous selection from the hapless manager.
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“I don’t think my team changes made any difference,” said Grant, who hauled off captain Matty Upson and Piquionne at half time, moving Tomkins into the middle and Jacobsen to his rightful place at right back.
“Even if it didn’t look like it out on the pitch at times, the commitment was there, it was just that everything that we were trying was not working. We had chances, but we didn’t score, yet Bolton did get goals.
“It was one of those days, but I don’t have a problem with their commitment.”
Maybe not, but what about the tactics? Surely West Ham had been preparing diligently all week for this game, they must know how Bolton play, yet every cross was allowed to come into the box and every one of them was won by a Wanderers head.
West Ham gave the ball away so often in that first half, you would have thought it had been delivered from the Fukushima nuclear plant and nobody was devoid of blame. On a day when the team needed to deliver a performance, they played like total strangers without tactics, without passion and seemingly without hope.
“I need to see the game again, but it’s a fact that we didn’t play good. We started well, but their first goal affected us. We were down and we let them control the game. We lost almost every battle in the first half. That was the key. We gave the ball away so many times and we have to pass the ball with more quality.”
That’s an understatement. There were early warning signs. Daniel Sturridge was allowed to turn and see his shot deflected inches wide and from the resulting corner, Gary Cahill rose unchallenged to head just wide.
West Ham did have one half chance. Robbie Keane – wasted on the left hand side of midfield – played in Wayne Bridge, but the full back was caught in two minds and instead of either letting fly or passing the ball he dwelt too long and Bolton got back to stop him.
Three minutes later they were behind. Kevin Davies – so often West Ham’s nemesis – nodded down and when the ball fell for Sturridge, he was given the freedom of the Reebok to turn by Upson, before curling a delightful shot into the far corner.
Davies could have made it two when he was put clean through only to drag his shot wide, but just a minute later it was 2-0 when Petrov was generously invited to cross from the left.
He picked out the diminutive CY Lee who stood unmarked between Upson and Manuel Da Costa like a little boy in the middle of his parents, and he nodded past Green from six yards.
Perhaps memories of the game at West Brom would inspire the Hammers, perhaps not. Cahill headed wide, Johan Elmander turned Da Costa before shooting just past the post, while Sturridge forced a save from Robert Green after meeting Petrov’s cross with his head.
Hitzlsperger’s tame shot straight at the keeper was as good as it got for the Hammers in the first half, their most inept display since the trip to Newcastle back in January.
“At half time we were just talking about how we could change the game in the second half,” said Grant. “We had the belief that we could change the game and that was all I was talking to them about. We started the second half well and played better after the break, but we just couldn’t score.”
To a point he was right. At least West Ham passed it to each other after the break with Cole and Demba Ba providing some semblance of a cutting edge and Keane beginning to make things happen in the middle of the park.
Ba and Scott Parker had early shots, but just as West Ham were beginning to take control they were hit with a hammer blow, though once again it was mainly their own doing.
Sturridge cut in from the left and as Tomkins and Parker backed off to let him run, the striker hit a shot from the edge of the box which arrowed into the corner of the net.
That was it, game over, and it became a matter of whether Bolton would add to their tally.
Tomkins denied Sturridge his hat-trick with a superb last-ditch tackle and the Chelsea loan star was then put clean through only for Green to deny his chipped effort.
At the other end, Bridge crossed for Ba’s header to be superbly saved by Jussi Jaaskelainen, Keane fired high and wide and Hitzlsperger’s low cross was hacked away by Zat Knight as Ba waited to pounce, but this was merely providing excitement for the neutrals in the crowd.
Still the chances came. Ba hammered a shot against the inside of the post, Da Costa’s header was cleared off the line by Petrov and Ba shot straight at the keeper, but there was never a moment in this game when you thought that West Ham were going to make a comeback.
In fact, if Sturridge had been more accurate, Bolton could have scored five or six and not been flattered by it.
“I still believe that we can stay in the league,” said Grant. “What you saw in the first half today is not something that you see everyday in our team. It was an exception.”
Not quite and if we see it again this season then the only trip to Liverpool that West Ham fans can enjoy next season is if they book their tickets for the Aintree spectacular. At least that means they won’t have to sit through another Reebok nightmare.
West Ham: Green, Tomkins, Bridge, Upson (Jacobsen h/t), Da Costa, Noble, Parker (Spector 76), Hitzlsperger, Piquionne (Cole h/t), Keane, Ba.
Unused: Boffin, Gabbidon, Obinna, O’Neil.
Referee: Lee Probert 7.