Perhaps West Ham are not so dependent on Andy Carroll after all. After a week in which the club’s lawyers suffered defeat in their attempts to overturn the big striker’s three-match ban for his sending-off against Swansea, their footballers enjoyed a precious victory in their bid to escape relegation.
Carroll’s short-lived return against Swansea last weekend had seemed to spark his old mate Kevin Nolan back into life, and the Liverpudlian picked up where he had left off against the Welsh side with two goals in the first three minutes of the second half. Nolan (below), 31, has become a target for criticism this season, having collected as many red cards – for mindless challenges against Liverpool and Fulham – as goals prior to this month. Yet after his double against Swansea, that old chicken-dance celebration was seen twice more at Villa Park yesterday.
“He’s trying to put right what he did wrong with those two silly sendings-off,” Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, said. “His two goals today showed he doesn’t have to have an Andy Carroll to score goals.”
The second half was 17 seconds old when Nolan struck his first. He laid off a long ball to Stewart Downing on the right side of the area, and the winger outfoxed Ryan Bertrand and crossed low for his captain to strike with a back-heel flick which deflected off Ciaran Clark and flew into the net.
Just minutes later, Nolan made it two. When Nathan Baker left the ball to Fabian Delph on the edge of the home box, Nolan stuck in a foot to rob it and strode clear to bury a low shot past Guzan.
With this victory West Ham climbed out of the bottom three and up to 14th, within two points of Villa. Paul Lambert’s team looked to have found some form in recent games against Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion, but their form at Villa Park remains their Achilles heel. This was their eighth defeat in 13 home League fixtures and, not for the first time, Lambert was left to lament their defending.
“At this level you cannot defend that way,” he said. “We never dealt with the long ball [for the first goal]. The second goal is just a basic error.”
Even before Nolan’s double West Ham had been the better team, coming close to scoring three times in quick succession midway through the first half, with Matt Jarvis involved each time. After Downing failed to turn in a low cross by the left- winger, Jarvis himself twice raced clear down the left but could not find the target. Carlton Cole was also profligate after an error by Clark, and made way at half-time for debutant Marco Borriello.
West Ham may have had problems in attack this season, but their clean sheet here was their 12th of the season – more than any other Premier League club. While Villa struggled without the injured Ron Vlaar, the Londoners had the game’s outstanding defender in James Collins, a centre-back offloaded by Lambert two summers ago, who shone against his old team.
Only after the introduction of Marc Albrighton did Villa finally create some openings. Christian Benteke failed to connect with a teasing Albrighton cross, Albrighton drove a shot against a post and Benteke’s header looped against the crossbar. But for Villa, the damage was already done.
Aston Villa (4-3-3): Guzan; Lowton (Albrighton, 56), Clark, Baker, Bertrand (Bennett, 74); Bacuna, Westwood, Delph; Weimann (Holt, 71), Benteke, Agbonlahor.
West Ham Utd (4-5-1): Adrian; Demel, Collins, Tomkins, McCartney; Jarvis (Reid, 74), Noble, Nolan (Nocerino, 68), Taylor, Downing; C Cole (Borriello, 45).
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the match: Nolan (West Ham)
Match rating: 6/10