West Ham United failed to deliver a decisive victory over promotion rivals Southampton last night, succumbing to a Jos Hooiveld equaliser with 15 minutes left. What Sam Allardyce's side did produce, though, was another short-handed performance of nerve and discipline, conceding after holding out for nearly an hour with 10 men.
The 1-1 draw did not extend West Ham's lead over Southampton beyond the current one-point gap, but it did show that they have the necessary qualities to stay there.
For the second match in a row, West Ham had to fight for the vast majority of the game with 10 men: one of the greatest character tests in football. Ten days ago against Millwall they fought their way to a stirring 2-1 win. That night they lost Kevin Nolan after eight minutes, last night they lost Matt Taylor after 18.
"I'm inspired by the players' performance, and by their willingness to not allow the opposition to beat them, even though the odds are against us," Allardyce said afterwards. As with the Millwall victory, the centre-back pair of Winston Reid and Abdoulaye Faye were impeccable, as were midfielders James Tomkins and Mark Noble, performing the work of three men.
Noble put West Ham ahead in the first half, at the end of a sequence that also included the red card. Matt Taylor rolled a free-kick to Noble in the box, and was tackled by Southampton's Billy Sharp. Noble fell, and Sharp took exception as Lee Probert whistled for the penalty. Taylor replied in kind, taking exception to Sharp. Taylor was sent off, Sharp was booked, and Noble scored his seventh penalty of the season.
While Allardyce said he was "disappointed", given Taylor appeared to push Lambert in the chest, not the face, he was more aggrieved with earlier decisions. Allardyce believed West Ham should have already had two penalties, accusing both Rickie Lambert and Hooiveld of "punch[ing] the ball" in the box. "I knew they were two penalties at the time because of everybody in the stadium appealing for it. I've also just looked at it four times on my laptop. So we could have already won the game if decisions are made correctly."
Southampton manager Nigel Adkins was not quite as critical, saying merely the officials "had an interesting evening". In truth, he may have been more frustrated with his players who failed to exploit their advantage and go top.
Immediately after the red card, Saints did start to create chances. Rob Green saved Adam Lallana's shot from distance, before Sharp could only hit the simple rebound straight at him. Green later had to save down to his left from Lambert, who also curled a free-kick just wide.
West Ham looked much more secure in the second half, limiting Southampton to shots from distance and hopeful balls to Lambert. With 15 minutes left, though, that hope was repaid as a far-post flick found Hooiveld, who controlled and stabbed past Rob Green.
West Ham United (4-1-4-1): Green; O'Brien, Faye, Reid, Taylor; Tomkins; Faubert, Noble, Collison (McCartney, 21), Vaz Te (O'Neil, 71 ); Cole (Maynard, 65 ). Substitutes not used Baldock, Lansbury.
Southampton (4-4-2): Davis; Richardson (Connolly, 80), Fonte, Hooiveld, Fox; Do Prado (Puncheon, 55), Schneiderlin, Cork, Lallana; Sharp (Hammond, 83), Lambert. Substitutes not used Martin, Lee.
Referee L Probert (Wiltshire).