Football: Hartson's firepower inspires Hammers

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West Ham United 4 Crystal Palace 1

Roberto Bettega, executive vice-president of Juventus, was at Upton Park last night, ostensibly to check on the potential for investing in Crystal Palace. No mean striker himself in his prime, Bettega has left pondering the potential of the West Ham centre-forward John Hartson.

Eyebrows were raised, not least in East London, when Harry Redknapp paid Arsenal pounds 3.2m for Hartson. Yet by putting West Ham ahead against Palace with his 17th goal of the season, the 22-year-old Welshman cemented his position as the Premiership's leading scorer.

His contribution, however, extends beyond the mere plundering of goals. Hartson now creates them as well. He was heavily involved in the one which restored West Ham's lead after Neil Shipperley's equaliser, and again when Steve Lomas put even a point beyond Palace with the fourth home goal.

There was also a case for arguing that the visitors had been so distracted by Hartson that they failed to pick up David Unsworth when he collected West Ham's third.

The curious thing was that Palace, who have led 2-0 in the original fixture last month only to be pegged back to 2-2 before the floodlights failed, looked the more cohesive side until West Ham scored. As befits a team who boasted the division's joint-best away record, they counter-attacked at great pace, their strategy seemingly unaffected by the early loss of Jamie Smith.

Palace, indeed, should have gone in front after 21 minutes. Michele Padovano, who had taken Paul Warhurst's place when the utility player dropped back to cover for Smith, gave Hermann Hreidarsson a free shot. The Icelander miscued, but it still required a fine one-handed save by Craig Forrest.

West Ham's best effort up to that point had been a scuffed shot by Eyal Berkovitch from Hartson's pass, but the Israeli-Welsh duo reversed roles to stunning effect on the half-hour. Following Unsworth's long pass, Berkovitch beat two defenders before rolling the ball back to Hartson. A swing of the right boot powered it past Kevin Miller's left hand.

Palace drew level four minutes from half-time. Stan Lazaridis, guarding the far post at Simon Rodger's corner, kept out an Andy Linighan header, but Shipperley - who scored twice in the abandoned fixture - forced the ball in to score for the fifth successive game.

West Ham regained the initiative by scoring immediately before and after the interval. In stoppage time, Lazaridis crossed, Hartson climbed, and when his header rebounded off the bar, Berkovitch fired home.

Palace found themselves further adrift as West Ham again exploited their strength in the air. From a Lazaridis corner, Ian Pearce headed on, enabling Unsworth to volley his first goal since arriving from Everton.

Palace came close to cutting the deficit after 62 minutes. Warhurst's deft, angled chip over Forrest from 18 yards demonstrated why he prefers an attacking role. The ball struck the post and was cleared.

There was no way back for Palace after a fourth West Ham goal with 19 minutes remaining. Hartson once more underlined the improvement in his all-round game, crossing for Steve Lomas to sidefoot home and open his account for the club.

Signor Bettega's report back to Turin will make interesting reading.

West Ham United (3-4-1-2): Forrest; Pearce, Ferdinand, Unsworth; Breacker, Lomas, Moncur, Lazaridis (Rowland, 72); Berkovitch; Abou (Alves, 80), Hartson. Substitutes not used: Potts, Dowie, Sealey (gk).

Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Miller; Linighan, Edworthy, Hreidarsson; Smith (Padovano, 12), Emblen, Zohar, Rodger, Gordon; Warhurst, Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Veart, Davies, Fullarton, Nash (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).