Football: Hammers close in on European spot

West Ham United 2 Newcastle United 0
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SUBTLE CHANGES are being made at Upton Park. A new club crest was unveiled on Saturday, the little caps on the castle's towers have disappeared without appearing to diminish the Boleyn's stout defences, while the crossed hammers have a hint more menace about them. Which was a fair assessment of affairs on the pitch as West Ham climbed to fifth place in the Premiership by overcoming a stilted Newcastle. The promise of a place in Europe next season shifts tantalisingly closer to east London.

Paolo di Canio and Paul Kitson's recently formed attacking partnership provided the goals and the points, but the Hammers' fourth victory in six matches was indebted to a defence that has been fortified by the addition of Scott Minto and return from injury of Neil Ruddock.

That was abundantly clear to Ruud Gullit, who cut a weary if gracious figure following Newcastle's second successive League defeat. "We played some good stuff, but we did not have the firepower to make it difficult for them," the manager said. "Also because they had a good shape in the back four, and that was the difference."

Naturally, Gullit's mood was in stark contrast to that of an ebullient Harry Redknapp. The West Ham manager was positively aglow afterwards, heaping praise on his defenders and jesting amiably about Di Canio's skills, saying: "If he works on his ball control, he'll be a decent player!"

No, but seriously, Harry... "We've gone above Aston Villa now and that's a great achievement. We couldn't live with Newcastle a few years ago but we can now. People will say they've gone backwards, but we've improved."

That they have is without doubt, and the recent additions of Marc-Vivien Foe and Minto demonstrates that Redknapp has an eye for a player. A gambler by nature, too, his decision to pay Sheffield Wednesday pounds 1.7m for Di Canio after his four months in the footballing wilder-ness had appeared to be his greatest punt yet.

Di Canio was every bit the darting rapier, breaking wide on both wings, and a constant torment to Newcastle. His opening goal was inevitable when it arrived after 17 minutes. A long ball forward caused Newcastle's makeshift defence to falter, but Di Canio appeared offside when the ball fell squarely into his path. The assistant referee waved, but, since the ball had last touched Nikos Dabizas's heel, the Italian played on and angled his shot beyond Shay Given. The goalkeeper appeared to have acknowledged the flag rather than the old maxim of playing to the whistle. The referee, Paul Durkin, overruled his assistant and the goal stood. "A terrible goal, but a good decision," conceded Gullit.

In the second half, Di Canio teed up Kitson with a cross from the right, but the former Newcastle striker headed wastefully against the bar, the ball rolling along the goalline before Laurent Charvet hacked it clear. On 82 minutes Kitson was not to be thwarted when he ran on to Frank Lampard's raking pass downfield, pirouetted free of two defenders, and drove his shot inside the far post.

The attacking brio of the West Ham forwards drew a stark comparison to another forlorn 90 minutes from Alan Shearer. Aside from a 20-yard free- kick early in the match that was saved by the excellent Shaka Hislop, Shearer was an isolated and frustrated figure, easily contained by his England team-mate Rio Ferdinand.

Gullit would not be drawn on the striker's performance - "I don't talk about individuals" - and a terse claim that his formation comprised three attackers appeared disingenuous.

His first season at Newcastle now hinges on the FA Cup semi-final, while West Ham could be on the cusp of engaging European opposition for the first time in 18 years.

Goals: Di Canio (17) 1-0; Kitson (82) 2-0.

West Ham United (4-4-2): Hislop; Pearce, Ferdinand, Ruddock, Minto; Lampard, Foe, Lomas, Sinclair; Di Canio, Kitson. Substitutes not used: Potts, Keller, Moncur, Berkovic, Forrest (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Griffin, Charvet, Dabizas, Domi; Maric (Ketsbaia, 59), Georgiadis (Lee, 60), Speed, Solano; Shearer, Saha. Substitutes not used: Barton, Hughes, Harper (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland). Bookings: West Ham: Foe, Ruddock.

Man of the match: Ruddock.

Attendance: 25,997.

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