High-rise Hammers overshadow O'Neill

Aston Villa 1 West Ham United 1
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The Independent Football

To focus on Aston Villa's failings may be unavoidable after Martin O'Neill's side allowed their diminishing Champions League chance to become more tenuous still with another two home points dropped. Yet to do so, perhaps, would unfairly obscure West Ham's achievements.

On 20 December, when a home defeat to Villa left them with seven points from 12 games, Gianfranco Zola's side were 17th, just one point above the bottom three. Today, they are 10 places better off and prime candidates for the Europa League.

Villa in that time have merely slipped from third to fifth. Of course, it means rather more than that and it shows in O'Neill, who wore the look on Saturday evening of a man suffering almost intolerable frustration.

Any change in Zola's demeanour, given that his smile seems irrepressible even in the most trying times, would be difficult to spot. Yet his pride, you sense, is the equal of O'Neill's disappointment, particularly after all the challenges he has faced, on and off the field, since taking charge in mid-September.

"When you see a project coming together so well, you just feel so good," he said. "To be so high in the table is a dream. When you start something you have ambitions, but you never know where you are going to get to. Some players have come through out of the blue. First it was Jack Collison, then Freddie Sears and now Junior Stanislas. But it means that the methodology we are using is working and it gives us a good base for the future."

Stanislas, 19 and starting only his third Premier League match, brimmed with pace and confidence on the left before two more 19-year-olds – Sears and Zola's £9m forward Savio Nsereko provided the late injection of energy that secured West Ham's point, supplementing a performance underpinned by the growing maturity of 21-year-old Mark Noble in midfield.

The goal their enthusiasm created might have had an element of flukiness, given that Diego Tristan's header owed more to instinct than intention, but Villa's Brad Friedel had to make vital saves either side of it, so it was hardly undeserved.

Villa believed, nonetheless, that they should have won, having squandered several chances to build on Emile Heskey's 11th-minute goal and been denied a clear penalty late on.

After only five home League wins, O'Neill's frustration is understandable, although his players are trying to be upbeat. "It is going to be tough now [to finish in the top four] but fifth place would not be a failure," said the defender Curtis Davies. "You have to look at things from the beginning of the season. If we finish fifth, it will be one better than last year. There are a lot of teams who would love to finish fifth in the Premier League."

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Cuellar, Davies, Shorey; Milner (Gardner, 81), Barry, Petrov, A Young; Heskey (Delfouneso, 71), Carew. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Knight, Salifou, Reo-Coker.

West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Tomkins, Collins (Dyer, 33), Upson, Ilunga; Boa Morte, Neill, Noble, Stanislas (Nsereko, 74); Tristan, Di Michele (Sears, 81). Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Lopez, Payne, Hines.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Aston Villa A Young, Petrov; West Ham Noble, Boa Morte, Upson.

Man of the match: Noble.

Attendance: 39,534.