Aston Villa reached the traditional target for Premier League safety of 40 points yesterday, but West Ham's brief resurgence earlier in spring is beginning to fade into memory, replaced by what looks distinctly like relegation form. Although Gabriel Agbonlahor's winner came in injury time, Villa were well worth their victory. They recovered from the shock of conceding an early goal to Robbie Keane, and although they were gifted Darren Bent's equaliser after 36 minutes, they dominated the second half.
Ashley Young was almost unplayable, and his alertness was behind both the goals that edged Villa into the top half of the table. West Ham, in contrast, dropped a place to 19th thanks to Wigan's victory at Blackpool, and looked bereft of all inspiration in the absence through injury of Scott Parker. After a five-match unbeaten run in February and March, this was the Hammers' third successive defeat, and with visits to Chelsea and Manchester City up next, it was a must-win game that they seldom looked like winning. "It was crucial and the players knew it," Avram Grant, their manager, admitted.
They complete their fixtures with a trio of six-pointers against Blackburn, Wigan and Sunderland, for which Parker is expected to have recovered from an achilles problem, but by the time they begin that sequence they could be well adrift. "We have been here since the beginning of the season," Grant said. "We need to be strong. It will be difficult but I still believe it's possible."
Villa have showed as much by taking seven points from three matchessince well-publicised dressing-room unrest last month threatened to undermine team morale. Richard Dunne and James Collins were disciplined for criticism of coaching staff, but formed an almost impenetrable central defensive combination for most of yesterday's game. "When you're in danger you can't have egos in the team, you have to work for each other," Villa managerGérard Houllier said. "We went for the win from the first minute."
They looked unlikely to get it when they left Keane onside and unmarked after two minutes to bring down Thomas Hitzlsperger's forward header, swivel and rifle in his second goal for West Ham past Brad Friedel from six yards. Buoyed by their lead, West Ham started to play with confidence. Keane slipped Carlton Cole through for a shot that was blocked, and Dunne got away with a shove on Cole that could have resulted in a red card as both chased a bouncing pass into the Villa penaltyarea. But West Ham were also fortunate when Bent was ruled to have pushed Lars Jacobsen before heading in Stewart Downing's clever cross.
The disallowed goal sparked Villa but their equaliser came thanks to an elementary error by West Ham's Mark Noble, who tried to beat the returning Emile Heskey in his own penaltyarea and lost the ball. They might have escaped but for Ashley Young, who seized on it and fed Luke Young on the left, his cross glanced home by Bent.
The second half belonged entirelyto Villa. Robert Green blocked Bent's angled shot, and flung himself to his left to a fingertip aside a curlingeffort by Ashley Young that was bound for the far corner. Bent fluffed a chance created by Kyle Walker's strong run, powderpuffing his shot into Green's hands, but Villa were playing with a swagger and stretching the West Ham defence close to breaking point.
It made their late winner seem inevitable, even though Cole lobbed a good chance wide five minutes from time as Dunne failed to deal with a long ball. Instead, lack of concentration once again cost West Ham dear. Green did well to parry a shot from Downing, but nobody moved to prevent Ashley Young collecting the loose ball and crossing for substitute Agbonlahor to push Danny Gabbidon out of the way and head in.
Referee: Mark Halsey
Man of the match: A Young