The joke doing the rounds about the Europa League is that it will be harder to get out of than it is to get into. But at least West Ham look desperate to gain entry into the much-pilloried replacement for the Uefa Cup; despite it being such a bind it will require the winner to play up to 19 games before lifting the new trophy next May.
If any place is a test of a team's resolve then it is the Britannia Stadium. It is not an easy place to come and earn three points, as most of the Premier League will testify. Indeed, this was Stoke City's first home defeat of 2009 as their bubble was deflated by a Hammers outfit that refused to be battered into late submission. Stoke pressed forward in a fraught finale as if their lives depended on it. In truth, their lives did not depend on it.
Tony Pulis's above-their-weight punchers are already safe, a statement that perhaps only pedantic mathematicians and the cautious Welsh manager might doubt. Their recent heroic exertions may well have taken their toll, although, to their credit, they never stopped running, or believing.
But Gianfranco Zola's side survived and in doing so leapfrogged Fulham into seventh and the last Europa spot. West Ham's conviction appears as steely as any of their rivals in the race for last spot, even if, with Liverpool and Everton next up, their fixture list is daunting. Certainly their ambition is admirable. "If the other teams don't want to take part in it [the Europa], then we will be very glad to try," said Zola with a wink afterwards. "We realise there will be a lot of games in the tournament and it will be a big ask. But I also know that to play in Europe will be a big thing for our young players and will improve them very much. That is why we will fight to the finish this season."
They did just that yesterday – they had no choice but to. West Ham had broken the deadlock just after the half-hour mark, when Diego Tristan's sweet free-kick located the top corner, although, by then, both sides had seen goals disallowed in controversial circumstances. If Ricardo Fuller's foul on the excellent Robert Green looked harsh, then so, Zola said, was the handball decision on Tristan a few minutes later. David Di Michele duly found the net but only a split-second before Peter Walton found his whistle.
In fact, the referee had a busy and contentious afternoon all round. Rory Delap probably should have been sent off when kicking out at Luis Boa Morte after what in fairness had been a nasty challenge. ("I can only think that the referee did not see it," commented Zola). A little later, the Brittania was in absolute uproar when Mr Walton decided to book Liam Lawrence for diving in the box when he claimed he had been tripped by Radoslav Kovac. That came at the end of the first half and only served to ignite the Pottery fires.
It was inevitable that Stoke would come out strongly in the second half and so they did, barely pausing in their efforts to create the equaliser. Delap's trademark long throw-ins were, in the main, dealt with in fine fashion by Green. But Stoke do have other outlets. Abdoulaye Faye and Ryan Shawcross both went near, yet it was Fuller who summed up the frustrations best of all. With five minutes to go, only a block by Kovac kept him out and then, after Tristan's lob had drifted inches wide up the other end, Fuller failed to keep down his shot, when the headlines beckoned, on the edge of the six-yard box.
Referee: Peter Walton
Man of the match: Tristan
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content