Noble gives West Ham clear sight of survival
West Ham United 3 Stoke City 0: Grant's new-look side cut Stoke down to size to escape relegation zone
Sunday 06 March 2011
Whether through daring team selection, the feebleness of the opposition or even a new lucky scarf to replace the one he threw into the crowd in January, West Ham's manager, Avram Grant, can enjoy a week above the Barclays Premier League relegation zone for the first time since his team beat Wolverhampton Wanderers on New Year's Day.
Grant broke the manager's rule of never to change a winning team, adding height to his side in order to counter Stoke's physical threat, and was rewarded with goals from Demba Ba, Manuel Da Costa and Thomas Hitzlsperger.
Back-to-back wins, and 14 goals scored in four matches in all competitions, suggest that West Ham have turned a corner since abandoning their pursuit of a possible replacement for Grant in January. The signing of four players, including Ba, and the return of Hitzl-sperger from injury have also helped.
"It was a good week," Grant said afterwards. "We are getting better from game to game. All the new signings are doing well and we have momentum. I followed Ba for a long time, and Thomas [Hitzlsperger] is like a fifth January signing."
Ba was the pick of the forwards, profiting from a goalkeeping error by Asmir Begovic to score his fourth goal in as many matches since joining from Hoffenheim. But Mark Noble was arguably their most influential player.
Stoke are seldom thought of as a soft touch, but this defeat set a club record of six successive Premier League away defeats. Tony Pulis's side are also without a goal on their travels for 500 minutes. They are especially uncomfortable in the capital, where they have lost five times this season, and relegation remains a possibility, if a remote one.
"We need one to go in off someone's backside," the Stoke managersaid. "We will be all right, but it's a tough old league. We need to get to 40 points as soon as possible and then look around."
West Ham might have appeared the ideal antidote, but although their 4-3-3 seemed at first to leave them short on the wings, when they took the lead after 21 minutes it was straightforward ball down the middle that unlocked the defence.
Noble's pass sent Ba racing towards the penalty area with Marc Wilson, the right-back, at his shoulder. Begovic, rushing from his goalline, was still favourite to reach the ball first, but the goalkeeper kicked only air and Ba reached the ball before Wilson to score.
Pulis was reminded that Stoke had almost signed the Senegal forward in January only to pull out on medical advice. "We did what we did in good faith and you'd never criticise [the medical staff] for that," he said.
Eight minutes later it was 2-0 as West Ham beat Stoke at their own game from a set-play. Hitzlsperger flighted a free-kick on the left to the far post, where Da Costa outjumped Jonathan Walters to head powerfullypast Begovic.
Begovic touched Hitzlsperger's goal-bound drive over the bar and James Tomkins headed against the post, but Stoke did not surrender without a fight, and Rory Delap put Robert Green under pressure with a 20-yard shot as well as a series of throw-ins.
But West Ham settled the match with nine minutes to go. Noble's pass found Scott Parker, who went past Danny Pugh and cut the ball back to Frédéric Piquionne. The Frenchman's first-time effort was blocked by Ryan Shawcross but the ball bounced into the path of Hitzlsperger, who hit his first League goal for the club with a shot that nearly burst the net.
It is hard to see Stoke being as compliant next weekend, when the two teams meet again at the Britannia Stadium in the FA Cup sixth round. "I was disappointed with the first two goals," Pulis said. "Until the first we were in control of the game, and then they scored from a set-play, which was disappointing. After that it was all West Ham. Good luck to them."
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Noble
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