Aston Villa 1 West Ham Utd 0: Carew cuts Hammers down as Upson limps off on debut

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The Independent Online

Maybe West Ham should cherish this defeat. This was as comprehensive a 1-0 thrashing as they have suffered all season long and yet there was just the single-goal deficit. If they can somehow improve - and they surely cannot get worse after this insipid display for all bar the last two minutes - then, possibly, salvation may not be beyond them. The east London side's next two games, against Charlton and Watford, both below them in the relegation zone, have now assumed massive importance.

Alan Curbishley was quick to emphasise that fact, saying: "We have to beat Watford and probably Charlton." However, both of those teams, who are below the Hammers in the relegation zone, will be equally desperate. The game against Charlton also pits the West Ham manager against the club he ran for 15 years before leaving last summer, which adds a further twist which both sides could probably do without at this stage of the season. The five-point gap between the Hammers and safety is becoming an increasingly desperate situation, and just to add to their problems Matthew Upson limped off after 28 minutes of his debut.

Having fallen behind to John Carew's first-half strike, the visitors then waited until the very end to test Thomas Sorensen, when they did everything but score. It was a transformation that was unexpected and long overdue.

Firstly the substitute Matt Etherington made the Dane push his shot over the crossbar, and from the ensuing corner Calum Davenport brought a great reaction save.

With Villa failing to clear and their manager, Martin O'Neill, having palpitations on the sidelines, the ball ran to George McCartney, whose header was deflected on to the bar by Wilfred Bouma and Sorensen then scraped the ball clear once more.

Carew's goal offered further proof that O'Neill has pulled off some smart work in the January transfer window. Having offloaded Milan Baros to Lyon, he received the tall Norwegian international in return and it has worked a treat. In tandem with Ashley Young, O'Neill's main acquisition last month, at the cost of £9.25m from Watford, the two combined well on what was a home debut for both. Young scored on his debut in midweek against Newcastle at St James' Park and here Carew joined his new team-mate in breaking his duck at the first opportunity.

With nine minutes remaining before the interval and Young having already tested Roy Carroll in the West Ham goal, the 21-year-old then slipped a pass to Carew. The former Valencia striker easily held off his marker Davenport and struck a shot that Carroll may reproach himself for not stopping from 18 yards.

The goal had been coming as the visitors failed to impose themselves on this game, betraying a lack of confidence that Curbishley alluded to afterwards. "We need to get our noses in front, then you'll see a different team," he said.

Prior to Carew's strike, Gavin McCann and Stilian Petrov had tried their luck from long range. Meanwhile Sorensen was simply getting cold as his team-mates controlled the midfield and left Kepa Blanco and Bobby Zamora isolated. The Hammers, who have now gone eight League games without a win, will have to provide more opportunities for their front men.

This was only Villa's second win in 15 games but it effectively removed them from the relegation equation, and O'Neill had high praise for his Scandinavian saviours. He said: "Thomas made two fantastic saves in 15 seconds. And in the first half Carew did more than anyone could expect of him on his home debut."

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