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Stoke City 0-1 West Ham United

 

  It seems that Stoke’s Premier League survival party will have to wait just a little longer, after West Ham edged out an exciting, bad-tempered and ultimately very frustrating encounter at the Britannia Stadium this afternoon. The only goal of the game came just after the half hour mark, veteran striker Diego Tristan striking home a stunning free-kick, and while Tony Pulis’s side enjoyed by far the vest of the second half, you had to feel it was “just one of those days” as the Hammers survived heavy pressure to win to condemn the Potters to their first home loss of 2009.

  Before the game, Stoke were handed a very welcome piece of news, with key striker James Beattie being declared fit for the game after recovering quickly from a thigh injury that could have kept him out for the rest of the season, the former Southampton man replacing Richard Cresswell to partner Ricardo Fuller in attack. First-choice right-back Andy Wilkinson also returned his injury, having missed the defeat at Fulham a week ago, replacing Stephen Kelly to put in an accomplished performance. Meanwhile there was one change for West Ham from the side that were beaten by Chelsea last week, manager Gianfranco Zola forced to replace the injured Kieron Dyer with Czech midfielder Radoslav Kovac.

  With the Britannia Stadium atmosphere particularly raucous, the game began very brightly, with the attitudes of both sides, Stoke playing without the immediate pressure of a relegation fight, and West Ham determined to bolster their chances of making Europe, resulting in some open, high-tempo play. In fact, both sides had had the ball in the back of the net in the first thirteen minutes, only to see the strikes ruled out by referee Peter Walton, the latest in the long line of referees to disappoint at Stoke. First, it was the home side who thought they’d taken the lead, a Rory Delap long throw being bundled in by Fuller, who was of course sent off for slapping his captain Andy Griffin in the return fixture. As so often is the case  when a goalkeeper is challenged from a set-piece, a foul was awarded against the attacking player though, with Walton, probably correctly judging West Ham ‘keeper Robert Green to have been unfairly barged.

  Three minutes later, after one of several fast breaks by the Londoners, they too thought they had scored, Italian forward David Di Michele poking the ball past Thomas Sorensen in the Stoke goal, though Walton was quick with his whistle, indicating he’d spotted a handball by Tristan in the build up. It smacked of “level it up” refereeing, and it’s not surprising that dissatisfaction soon began to show through both on the pitch and in the stands.

Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross (right) grabs hold of West Ham United's Radoslav Kovac (2nd right) and is booked for unsporting behaviour
One of several unsavoury incidents in the game

  As the half wore on, the intensity remained high, but neither side really threatened the other’s goal, with Stoke’s skipper in the absence of Griffin Abdoulaye Faye squandering the best chance, heading over from a Liam Lawrence corner. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the fans of the clubs, two of the most renowned for having a hooligan element in the past, began to bate each other, the verbal sparring across the dividing netting in the South Stand incensing the West Ham fans to the extent that dozens of back-up stewards had to be called in to contain their attempts to invade the home supporting section.

  The visiting coontingent soon had something more worthwhile to do than fight though, that being celebrate a goal for their team, after Walton awarded them a free-kick just outside the Stoke penalty area, Faye being penalised for a challenge despite appearing to first make contact with the ball and then the man, just one of many contentious decisions on the day. The way the free-kick was won bothered the Hammers not one iota though, as Tristan took the kick sublimely, beating Sorensen in his top right corner with a powerful effort. It was the Spaniard’s third goal of the season and second against Stoke, having also scored the winner in that game in December.

 West Ham United's Diego Tristan (2nd right) scores from a free kick
Tristan beats the wall and Sorensen to score his ultimately decisive goal

  From then until half time, the visitors had by far the best of the game, with Stoke visibly rattled, but the Potters could have been level just before its conclusion, former West Ham man picking out Fuller in the box after being superbly found in space by Delap’s cross-field ball. The Jamaican’s tough was a mite heavy though, and Green was able to smother the ball as he looked to stab it home. At this point the Britannia Stadium faithful were becoming increasing exasperated, having seen Lawrence booked for diving minutes before after going down in the West Ham box.

Stoke City's Liam Lawrence (left) reacts after being booked for unsporting behaviour
Lawrence vents his anger at referee Peter Walton after being cautioned for diving

  There was time left for one more West Ham attack, Zola’s men once again breaking fast and at one point having a two on one advantage on the Stoke defence, but Wilkinson not for the first time this season showed his precocious task, preventing West Ham winger Luis Boa more from either shooting or finding a team-mate, before forcing him wide and gaining a goal kick.

  The second forty-five minutes began with the visitors showing the admirable positive attitude they had without, Tristan shooting straight from the kick-off, though he would have been extremely lucky to beat Sorensen from such range, the Dane easily dealing with his strike. Like the first half, there were few genuine chances in the period, though from a neutral’s perspective it would have been considerably less enjoyable, as the quality of football degenerated, West Ham becoming increasing happy to defend their lead and losing their attacking impetus, and Stoke reverting to type in an attempt to break through the Hammers’ strong backline, hitting numerous long balls into their penalty area.

  It is, therefore, unsurprising that Stoke’s best chances of the half came as results of set pieces, with Delap’s trademark long throws beginning to cause problems to the defence that had stood up to them extremely well in the first half and a succession of corners bringing opportunities for Stoke, the best of these falling again to Faye. While he had fluffed his lines in the first half, the colossal Senegalese centre-back got his header spot on this time round, sending it perfectly looping past Green and towards the top corner of the goal from a tight angle, for all the world looking like nestling within the net, only to be denied by a superb headed clearance off the line by West Ham’s Mark Noble, the midfielder, hardly the tallest player on the pitch, rising very well to get to the ball and save his team.

Stoke City's Seyi George Ologinjana (left) and Ryan Shawcross (right) challenge West Ham United's Radolsav Kovac (centre) and Matthew Upson (centre to
Stoke bombard West Ham with set pieces, of course, you can’t give penalties for shirt pulling can you Mr. Walton?

  With seventeen minutes to play, Pulis opted to shake things up, about ten minutes later than would have bee ideal, bringing on Nigerian midfielder Seyi Olofinjana in place of Danny Pugh and Faye’s Senegalese teammate Henri Camara for Beattie. Camara has not seen a great deal of first-team action for Stoke since making the loan move from Wigan on transfer deadline day in February, but he impressed in his short time on the pitch, looking lively and battling well in spite of his slight frame, almost crafting himself a breakthrough when after his persistence in the box brought him a clear sight of goal he too suffered from Green’s pace off his line, the ‘keeper blocking the ball away into a goalmouth scramble, with the Hammers finally able to clear. On the back of this showing, I’d certainly like to see a little more of him in the forthcoming matches.

  One last chance fell to Fuller in five minutes of injury time, but swivelling on the ball amidst a mass of bodies twelve yards out, he could only fire disappointingly over the crossbar and into the stands, summing up Stoke’s lack of joy in front of goal. Nothing should be taken away from West Ham though, as they played extremely well and put together a lot of attractive football and will rightly be delighted to become just the fourth side to take three points from Stoke this season. I would even go as far as saying that their performance was second only to Chelsea, who strolled past Stoke back in September, in terms of quality both in ball retention and defence, and crucially, they had an emphatic finish when it mattered.

West Ham United's Diego Tristan (centre) is congratulated by his team mates after scoring the first goal
Zola and his team should feel justifiably delighted

  Despite the loss, there is still no cause for concern for Stoke, as with West Brom, Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Portsmouth all losing, we remain eight points clear of the relegation zone, now with most teams having just nine to play for, falling one place to thirteenth with Bolton leapfrogging us on goal difference after drawing with Wigan. Relegation threatened trio Newcastle, Hull and Sunderland are all still to play this weekend though, but with difficult opposition in Liverpool, Aston Villa and Everton, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a great deal of movement around the bottom of the table. Should they all fail to win, I feel we can safely say we will not be sucked back down into it, particularly as Middlesbrough and Newcastle still have to play each other. Next up for Stoke, is a trip to Hull, who’s form in recent months has been nothing short of dreadful. Any result gained there will surely make what we are almost certain of already a mathematical fact.

Stoke side: (4:4:2)

                             Sorensen

Wilkinson  Shawcross  Abdoulaye Faye  Pugh

      Lawrence  Delap  Whelan  Etherington

                          Beattie  Fuller

Substitutions: Camara for Beattie & Olofinjana for Pugh (73), Sonko for Wilkinson (88)

Unused Substitutes: Simonsen, Kelly, Tonge, Cresswell

Attendance: 27,500

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