A fraught weekend for the clubs chasing a place in next season's Champions League was complete yesterday when Aston Villa followed Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City in failing to win. West Ham are scarcely renowned for defiant rearguard actions, but outstanding goalkeeping by Robert Green and resolute defending earned the point that lifted them out of the relegation zone.
Villa may have the edge over Blackburn in their ongoing series of cup encounters, but this was the third consecutive Premier League fixture in which they have failed to score. While the agility and handling of Green, who turns 30 today, were partly responsible for their frustration, Martin O'Neill's side struggled to solve the tactical conundrum presented by Gianfranco Zola's decision to pack midfield and deploy only 18-year-old Frank Nouble in attack.
O'Neill praised a "terrific effort'' by a team that had played a Carling Cup semi-final on Thursday. "When you drop points at home it can be considered a missed opportunity, but we're capable of winning away," the Villa manager said. "It's a hard old battle. The sides we're competing with [for a top-four spot] are very fine teams.''
Zola, whose team play Portsmouth, Blackburn, Wolves and Burnley in their next four matches, described the point as "massive". He added: "The team is alive and looks determined to make an impact. That will give the players a boost for the future."
Nouble, a former Chelsea reserve, had a gilt-edged opportunity to collect his first senior goal after five minutes. Charging from his own half, he left James Collins on his backside and broke through Richard Dunne's challenge before the intervention of Stiliyan Petrov made him snatch at his shot and send it into the Holte End.
During the second half, Nouble harried Dunne so remorselessly that Petrov had to balloon a clearance into the crowd. The ball struck Radio 5 Live's Robbie Savage in the face, leaving him covered in tea.
If the Villa faithful enjoyed the discomfort of a former Birmingham bête noire, their own team took half an hour to establish their customary tempo. They went on to force 16 corners but found Green in the kind of form that makes him a certainty to be in contention for an England place in South Africa. A flying, one-handed save from Gabby Agbonlahor, who chested down a cross and swivelled to strike the ball on the volley, was from the top drawer.
Matthew Upson, another World Cup candidate, found a solid foil in James Tomkins, and even the constant positional switches by Ashley Young and Stewart Downing and the arrival of John Carew could not ruffle West Ham.
Scott Parker showing excellent leadership qualities before a hamstring strain ended his contribution. They rode their luck just before the hour when Radoslav Kovac, already booked for what looked a legitimate tackle on Emile Heskey, scythed down Petrov. Referee Mike Jones erred on the side of common sense, perhaps encouraged by Petrov leaping to his feet.
Zola's men not only survived – courtesy of a wayward Agbonlahor finish in the 63rd minute and Green's smothering of the same player's shot in stoppage time – but belatedly exerted pressure on Villa. A cross by one substitute, Alessandro Diamanti, was drilled goalwards by another, Junior Stanislas, leading Collins to slice his clearance over the bar against his old club.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing; Heskey (Carew, 57), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), L Young, Sidwell, Delfouneso, Delph, Beye.
West Ham United (4-5-1): Green; Faubert, Tomkins, Upson, Spector; Behrami, Parker (Diamanti, 57), Kovac (Stanislas, 62), Noble, Collison; Nouble (Da Costa, 90). Substitutes not used: Kurucz (gk), Jiminez, Sears, Daprela.
Referee: M Jones (Cheshire).
Booked: Aston Villa Petrov; West Ham Kovac, Stanislas.
Man of the match: Nouble.
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