When Alan Curbishley left Charlton Athletic two years ago, many supporters claimed to have become bored with watching dull football with his team grinding out results to ensure a mid-table position. At West Ham, the same sentiments were expressed after Curbishley walked out earlier this season with the team fifth in the Premier League. What Charlton – second bottom in the Championship – and West Ham – now confirmed relegation contenders – would not give for a couple of boring 1-0 wins over Christmas.
Gianfranco Zola's defenders would appear capable of keeping a clean sheet in this week's games with Portsmouth and Stoke; they were only beaten on Saturday by a deflection off Lucas Neill from James Milner's attempted cross. The harder part is conjuring up even the one goal. In the last 12 games West Ham have managed to score four times and have only managed to win once while tumbling down the table.
Happy with Craig Bellamy's hard work and enthusiasm, Zola insists he will also keep faith with Carlton Cole, whose potential he first recognised as a Chelsea team-mate, but has not been converted into achievement. "He needs to be more focused on scoring goals," the West Ham manager said. "He knows that and from Monday on I'll be working on him every single day to make it right. He has to score more goals." Dean Ashton's return from injury is apparently no nearer, which will at least make other clubs less likely to risk buying him in January.
In the aftermath of another defeat, Zola looked haggard, as if the reality of Premier League management had suddenly hit him. His players will have to learn to capitalise on periods like the 20 minutes after half-time when they were on top but wasted five chances. "We deserve much better than this," Zola said, but just deserts have never been part of football's package.
Villa's vastly more experienced Martin O'Neill was also shaking his head, in his case at the expectations raised by moving into third place while Manchester United were detained elsewhere. "We're doing nicely but we've got a long way to go," he said. "Breaking into the top four is going to be difficult but it's worth fighting for. We're better than we showed today." Using fewer players in the Premier League this season than any other team (17, the majority of them English) has helped spirit and cohesion, and the one major injury, to John Carew, has been offset by Gabriel Agbonlahor's superb response as a lone striker.
Whether there is enough strength in depth to sustain a challenge will only be answered in the new year. Signs of tiredness were evident on Saturday, although Villa will not feel the ravages of the holiday programme as much as most; after the key game at home to Arsenal on Friday, they do not play again until visiting Hull four days later. No respite, however, for Zola.
Goal: Neill og (78) 0-1.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Neill, Upson, Davenport, Ilunga; Collison (Tristan, 84), Parker (Mullins, h-t), Noble, Behrami (Bowyer, 57); Bellamy, Cole. Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Boa Morte, Faubert, Di Michele.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; Cuellar (Reo-Coker, 58), Davies, Laursen, L Young; Milner, Petrov, Barry, Sidwell, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Harewood, Delfouneso, Knight, Shorey, Gardner.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire)
Booked: West Ham Neill, Bellamy; Aston Villa Milner.
Man of the match: Friedel.