Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Battling Hammers embody Grant's spirit
Mark Lomas, Upton Park
Avram Grant may have come into this game with the proverbial axe hovering ominously above his head, but talk of the Israeli's future was temporarily swept to one side as West Ham's ten men secured what deserves to be another stay of execution for their boss with a rousing 2-1 victory in their Carling Cup semi-final first leg.
• Grant in dark over future
Grant has proved time and again since he first entered English football via the Chelsea press-room as Jose Mourinho's unknown, uncharismatic and unloved replacement in 2007 that he has a quality that is endearing to English football fans: he is a fighter.
He took Chelsea to the League Cup and Champions League finals and to the brink of the Premier League under the intense scrutiny of fans and media waiting for him to slip up. And last season, he fought on to the bitter end with Portsmouth, leading the club to the FA Cup final in a season in which they almost became extinct.
Against Birmingham, West Ham's players embodied their manager's battling spirit - though the need to do so was somewhat thrust on them by Victor Obinna's 59th-minute red card.
The Hammers came out and produced an expansive display of attacking football in the first half, with local boy Mark Noble deservedly opening the scoring after 13 minutes. He drove through midfield, before turning on the burners to accelerate down the right and cross towards Obinna. The Nigerian's knockdown was hooked back across the box by Scott Parker - where Noble was waiting to lash a ferocious effort past Ben Foster, who was beaten by the sheer power of the strike.
Grant's side continued to press - with Obinna and Freddie Sears full of industry on either flank and auxiliary full-back Matthew Upson offering a marauding supporting presence down the left wing; his successful overlaps serving to straighten out the raised eyebrows around the Boleyn Ground that had appeared when the captain's name was not at centre-half on the team-sheet. Foster was on top form in the first 45, thwarting Obinna, Spector and Tomkins with excellent stops, and the Birmingham goalkeeper would have one more vital contribution to make in the second half.
After such a good opening period, it all went wrong for the Hammers in the space of three minutes at the start of the second. Liam Ridgewell rose highest to power home an equaliser for Alex McLeish's side, and Obinna was then given his marching orders for a petulant retaliatory kick at Seb Larsson's family jewels.
If the goal was a sign that the Hammers' luck was changing then Obinna's dismissal represented a dramatic turning of the tide. The midfield, which had looked so solid in the first-half, began to resemble a fine Emmenthal, with holes appearing with increasing regularity. Frederic Piquionne battled hard up front on his own, feeding on scraps and holding the ball up admirably in a position he was given plenty of time to perfect at Portsmouth last season. But his was to be a bit-part, as his replacement Carlton Cole came on to play the role of chief protagonist.
Having soaked up Birmingham's pressure, Jonathan Spector found himself accelerating into space on the edge of Blues' penalty area. His pull-back reached Cole just inside the box, but Hammers fans were left turning away in disgust as his scuffed shot headed harmlessly towards Foster. Those who stayed focused on the Birmingham custodian, however, were left jubilant as the ball squirmed underneath the former Manchester United man and into the net. McLeish described the goal as "a monstrosity" after the game, though his criticism ended there, with the Birmingham boss admitting: "He's saved us many times before and he will save us many times in the future."
The man who appears to need saving the most, though, is Grant. His Hammers side held on resolutely to secure a victory that should temporarily stave off would-be executioners David Gold and David Sullivan. The Upton Park faithful were in full voice and the chants of "you're going down with the Villa" directed at them by their Blues' counterparts were drowned out; as with Portsmouth's patient fans last season the cup has offered them a much-needed respite from a tough Premier League season and has earned Grant their backing.
But despite leading the Hammers to the brink of their first Wembley final since 1981, the Israeli may not be afforded the time he was at Fratton Park. He was forced to bat off more questions about his future in the post-match press conference, telling the media to "ask the person who started the rumours" about his future, as well as questioning the reasoning behind the speculation.
"I understand that you are asking but there are seven teams in our position in the league," was one response from the under-fire boss, who also tried to turn the focus onto the players. "We need to respect the players and their performance, playing as ten men," Grant said. "Don't worry about me." But with the West Ham hierarchy set to meet on Wednesday with one key issue on the agenda, someone has to, Avram.
MAN OF THE MATCH: James Tomkins. Playing in the position usually occupied with his captain, Tomkins did superbly against the aerial threat of Cameron Jerome, and was equally adept on the ground, with the young centre-back emerging very much as the leading figure of his defensive partnership with New Zealand international Winston Reid.
WEST HAM VERDICT: It was certainly a tale of two halves for the Hammers, with both sets of 45 deserving commendation. The first was a fine attacking showing, while the second was full of determination, as the ten men held on, scored, and then held on again with to take a 2-1 advantage to Birmingham in a fortnight.
BIRMINGHAM VERDICT: Alex Hleb was ridiculed by Blues fans recently for mocking what he viewed as the long-ball football played by his side. But Birmingham continue to favour the punt to Cameron Jerome over a slick passing game that could be facilitated by ball-players like Hleb, Seb Larsson and Gardner.
UP FOR THE CUP: Avram Grant continued his outstanding record in cup semi-finals with English teams. He took Chelsea to the League Cup and Champions League finals in 2008, before guiding Pompey to the FA Cup showpiece at Wembley last season. His side must at least draw at St Andrew's next week if they are to continue his exemplary run, but Hammers fans be warned - Grant may have progressed to three finals before, but he has lost them all.