Di Canio strike lifts Hammers to extra effort

Aston Villa's delight cut short by last-minute penalty
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The Independent Online

The Worthington Cup, so often a solace to Aston Villa in times of trouble, tested their nerves to the limit at Upton Park last night. Seeking a place in the semi-final of the competition's many guises for the 11th time, which would have set a new record, Villa took a 2-1 lead through Dion Dublin in the 89th minute, only to be pegged back by an even later penalty from Paolo Di Canio and taken to extra time.

The Worthington Cup, so often a solace to Aston Villa in times of trouble, tested their nerves to the limit at Upton Park last night. Seeking a place in the semi-final of the competition's many guises for the 11th time, which would have set a new record, Villa took a 2-1 lead through Dion Dublin in the 89th minute, only to be pegged back by an even later penalty from Paolo Di Canio and taken to extra time.

The visitors' manager, John Gregory, who is banned from the touchline, sat in the posh seats just behind his trigger-happy chairman, Doug Ellis, as his side were forced back towards the end of a tie that eventually warmed up the home supporters.

During a year that has brought a miserable total of nine Premiership victories in 35 attempts, Villa's three biggest wins have all come in this season's Worthington Cup, against Chester, Manchester United's reserves and Southampton. Squeaking past Darlington in the FA Cup rather less convincingly than Gillingham had done in the previous round was hardly a confidence-booster, though at least they remain in the competition until after Christmas, which proved beyond West Ham.

The London side's wretched defeat at Tranmere on Saturday, accompanied by headlines like "Di Canio goes missing", gave them something to make up for last night, when the Italian started the match after being substituted at Prenton Park. Paulo Wanchope was restored alongside him as Harry Redknapp reverted to a 3-5-2 formation, with Trevor Sinclair and Marc Keller as wing-backs.

Gregory, had to do without the cup-tied Benito Carbone, Julian Joachim returning to bring greater pace, if less subtlety, to the attack. The inclusion of George Boateng brought new aggression into the midfield, where he was given the unenviable task of guarding Joe Cole, who, alas, lasted no longer than the first half. Having got nothing out of the adhesive Boateng, he was replaced by an extra striker in Paul Kitson.

Kick-off was delayed because of an unspecified incident on the District Line and anyone arriving more than four minutes late missed the opening goal. Neil Ruddock was guilty of adopting a casual air in attempting to shepherd the ball out of play near the byline. Paul Merson, challenging much more whole-heartedly, got over a cross which Ian Taylor guided into the far corner of the net.

Merson had caused alarm even before that with a volleyed cross that Dion Dublin could not quite reach, and, for a long time, the sum of West Ham's efforts at retaliation did not amount to much. Shots from Steve Lomas and Neil Ruddock, held by David James, were all they managed until half-time, when there were boos from the crowd of 23,974 - a decent size compared to many of the weekend's FA Cup ties.

Dublin, meanwhile, had two opportunities to increase the lead, from Steve Watson's firm header across goal and a half-clearance.

Similarly, although Kitson's introduction prompted the home side into a livelier burst at the start of the second half, in which Frank Lampard shot too high and Ruddock's header was blocked by Taylor, Joachim's speed of thought and legs almost caught them out. In the 53rd minute, he was suddenly away, capitalising on a error by Javier Margas, only to be denied by Rio Ferdinand's splendid recovering challenge.

One break, however, and suddenly the force was with West Ham. Ferdinand found Di Canio, close to being offside on the right of the penalty area but allowed to cut back an astute pass for Lampard, who swept a drive past James.

Even a superb volley by Dublin a minute from time could not deny Harry Redknapp's team, who immediately equalised. Kitson was brought down by Alan Wright and Di Canio's penalty was calmer than anyone had a right to expect.

West Ham United (3-5-2): Hislop; Margas, Ferdinand, Ruddock; Sinclair, Lampard, Lomas, Cole (Kitson, h-t), Keller; Di Canio, Wanchope. Substitutes : Forrest (gk), Foé, Minto, Omoyinmi.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Boateng, Merson (Stone, 75), Taylor, Wright; Dublin, Joachim. Substitutes : Cutler (gk), Vassell, Samuel, Calderwood.

Referee : S Lodge (South Yorkshire).

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