With an entertaining contest approaching its third minute of time added on, two goals by Dion Dublin either side of an own goal from Gareth Southgate looked certain to be just enough to maintain Aston Villa's 100 per cent start to the season and at the same time dislodge Manchester United from the top of the table.
West Ham had other ideas. At the climax of a move initiated in his own half by Paulo Wanchope and continued by Frank Lampard's return ball, the Cost Rican maverick provided a perfectly-weighted pass to Sinclair as he burst into Villa's penalty area. The wing-back, clearly more at home in a striker's role, beat David James with aplomb.
Since both last season's meetings between the clubs, who eventually finished fifth and sixth respectively, had been goal-less and neither James nor Shaka Hislop had conceded prior to last night, it must have been something of a surprise to the disappointingly small crowd of 26,000 that the teams conjured four between them on this occasion.
Two were the result of poor defending and two were of the highest quality, with one of each type arriving inside the opening seven minutes. Villa struck first in the fifth minute with a quite stunning goal which highlighted the all-round improvement in Julian Joachim's game. Touted by John Gregory as a potential stand in for Michael Owen, the former Leicester player took Alan Wright's pass on the left flank and turned his marker in a blur before crossing low and hard. Dublin still had his work cut out to score, but a deft right-footed touch burned off Rio Ferdinand with surprising ease before the left boot angled a fierce shot between Hislop and his near post.
Undaunted, West Ham drew level within 90 seconds, although they needed generous assistance from Villa to spoil James' hopes of a third consecutive clean sheet. Alan Thompson, finding himself in an unfamiliar defensive position, drilled his clearance straight at Marc-Vivien Foe. The Cameroonian's pot-shot offered no threat to Villa's goal until Southgate stuck out a foot to divert the ball past the wrong-footed goalkeeper.
West Ham, who carried the edge in creativity in midfield and were refreshingly unorthodox up front, enjoyed the greater share of possession in the first half and occasionally made Villa appear stereotyped by comparison.
Scoring opportunities, however, were at a premium. Dublin reached a 27th- minute corner only for Steve Potts to clear off the line, while Paolo di Canio's mid-air volley from a Scott Minto cross drifted only a yard wide of the far post.
The circumstances surrounding Villa's second goal, seven minutes after half-time, again highlighted Joachim's burgeoning menace, Dublin's finishing prowess and the problems of attacking players being asked to do what does not come naturally. The speed of Joachim was enough to embarrass even Ferdinand, gaining Villa a corner which the substitute Lee Hendrie swung in. The loose ball dropped to Wanchope, whose attempt to clear made Thompson's earlier effort look full-blooded. Dublin's rising drive from six yards was deflected in by Stuart Pearce for the former Coventry striker's 14th goal in 27 starts for Villa.
West Ham pressed hard for a second equaliser. Their best chance appeared to have gone when Wanchope, needing only a modicum of composure to convert Foe's low cross, shot straight at a grateful James. Yet with less time to think, Wanchope proved the provider par excellence for Sinclair.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Ehiogu, Southgate, Calderwood; Delaney, Taylor, Boateng (Hendrie, h-t), Thompson (Stone, 90), Wright; Joachim, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Merson, Ghrayib, Oakes (gk).
West Ham United (3-5-2): Hislop; Potts, Ferdinand, S Pearce; Sinclair, Lampard, Foe, Moncur (Kitson, 82), Minto (Keller, h-t); Wanchope, Di Canio. Substitutes not used: Carrick, Cole, Forrest (gk).
Referee: M Riley (Leeds).
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