McAnuff stars but it's not enough

West Ham United 0 Walsall 0
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The Independent Football

Relegation-threatened Walsall yesterday defiantly became the latest visitors to Upton Park to discover that West Ham's progress towards their goal of a quick return to the Premiership has a worrying weakness. Unless the Hammers can put steel and consistency into games that they begin to control, their ambitions will surely falter.

For all his initial inability to bring West Ham back into contention for a chance of promotion, Alan Pardew thought he had chipped away at the cold stone of pessimism, but after this performance he said: "We've got to have enough quality to break down teams who come to defend. This place will come alive if we give the fans the right product." It was dead for long periods yesterday.

Bearing in mind that the Hammers' run-in to the end of the season includes games against fellow promotion hopefuls Sunderland, Millwall, Reading and Wigan, as well as difficult ones against worried Gillingham and Derby County, the need to win their home games is obvious, but elusive.

Moving the ball fluidly and accurately, they gave an early impression of a side restored in confidence and hungry to get a firm hold. They could have done so after 16 minutes, but as Marlon Harewood swept the ball across the goalmouth after good build-up work from Adam Nowland, Bobby Zamora, in his second home appearance, strayed offside to nullify his quick turning of the ball into the net.

Walsall were not unduly disturbed and almost seemed to use the escape as an incentive. Not that they often threatened West Ham. It was more a matter of getting themselves better organised at the back and in midfield. Even so, West Ham made it easier for them by following their familiar trait of failing to press hard enough when in the ascendancy.

A leg injury to Hayden Mullins forced them to rearrange their defence, moving Tomas Repka to right-back and placing substitute Andy Melville in the centre. That ought not to have been too disconcerting, but sloppy, aimless clearances and poor passing everywhere cost them considerably. Indeed, they had to be thankful that Repka briefly moved back into the centre to block a goalmouth shot from Pedro Matias.

These days without the ingenuity of Paul Merson, Walsall nevertheless make the most of a more direct approach, making them appear the more accomplished side. In fact, by half-time the West Ham fans had grown impatient with their side's lack of positive thinking and finishing.

As in the first half, their team began the second well enough, with several crosses, mainly from substitute Jobi McAnuff, who had replaced Nowland, testing Walsall's defensive concentration. Melville had a fine chance to beat them but his header went directly into James Walker's hands.

In a mirror image of the sequence of the first half, Walsall were then allowed to claw their way back into a stronger position. In fact, after 57 minutes they came within a few inches of taking the lead when a centre from Zigor Aranalde was well met by Kris Taylor, whose header brushed the post. To the West Ham fans' partial relief, at least the former Wimbledon player McAnuff was full of spirit and had some neat touches that helped brighten an increasingly grey, rainswept afternoon. But he was in a minority. The standard of play overall was indifferent and the finishing continued to frustrate, not least when Harewood ran the ball too far, letting Walker make a daring save at his feet.

Although West Ham certainly had the greater second-half possession, the centre of the Walsall defence did a good job, also acting as occasional springboards to rapid counterattacks. From one of these the Portuguese Jorge Leitao chipped the ball on to the crossbar.

West Ham went straight back into the attack, but nothing really worked. McAnuff continued to be an effective provider but the recipients too often let him down. And all the time there was the excellent Walker in the Walsall goal: alert, quick, safe and man of a match in which the majority of outfield players left no lasting impression. The West Ham fans departed in good voice - all of it derision.