Football: Milosevic's European hammer blow

Aston Villa 2 Joachim 77, Milosevic 83 West Ham United 0 Attend ance: 39,372
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The Independent Online
WEST HAM for Europe? Perhaps, but do not renew the passport for a while yet. Their ambition at Villa Park yesterday looked decidedly near- sighted, allowing Villa to overcome the sloppiness of a match that until the last half an hour was going nowhere. Then Savo Milosevic arrived off the bench.

Only the bustling power of Milosevic hauled the game out of its slouching posture and endangered the West Ham defence. Not only that, he also finished them off with Villa's second goal ensuring that his club's notable recovery continued. John Gregory, the Villa manager, said of the unsettled Milosevic: "I don't want him to leave the club. He is a major asset but I don't want an unhappy player."

While West Ham had come through the last few weeks getting ever more serious about winning a Uefa Cup place for next season - especially after beating Leeds by three goals early last week - Villa have now achieved enough for Gregory to suggest that his notoriously hard-to-please chairman, Doug Ellis, was only half-joking when saying that they too ought to be looking for a berth in Europe. Not many weeks ago it would have been more a matter of facing a future in the first division.

So yesterday a match that on the face of it seemed like a fixture without much consequence was actually a challenge for wider rewards. West Ham approached it cautiously, holding back apart from a few tentative thrusts from Frank Lampard. Having the modest physical presence of only Dwight Yorke and Julian Joachim as their attack leaders cost Villa a lot in sheer power but made for some lightweight skill.

Apart from having an appeal for a penalty in the early moments when Lampard seemed to be brought down by Ugo Ehiogu, West Ham satisfied themselves with a containing game. Little seriously disturbed them, although a fine bending shot by Lee Hendrie skimmed dangerously close.

When West Ham did risk some adventure it proved more incisive than most of Villa's sustained pressure. Ian Pearce's header from a corner rapped the crossbar and Steve Lomas cracked the rebound against the post. Villa reacted well with Steve Staunton moving forward powerfully and seeing his searching shot have its power reduced by Bernard Lama before Villa cleared their lines.

About the most hopeful action of a match that was withering as it progressed was the sight of Villa taking off a defender, Gary Charles, and replacing him with the unpredictable Milosevic. At least that gave them a target.

Milosevic's presence was keeping the attention of Rio Ferdinand, allowing Yorke to line himself up unfettered for a splendid shot that Lama managed to deflect away. Milosevic continued to build Villa's hopes, stabbing a shot hard against the inside of the post. Yet Villa still needed the benefit of luck to secure the lead which Ian Taylor brought about after 77 minutes, his shot deflecting wickedly past Lama off Joachim. Hendrie, who had worked tirelessly, almost had his reward in the 82nd minute but his shot was parried by Lama, leaving Milosevic with an easy tap-in.