West Ham look to European football as Stoke fall at home
02 May 2009 06:44
Gianfranco Zola's players have now put themselves in prime position for qualification to the Europa League, their performance a demonstration of just the sort of grit that will be required in the final three games of the season to hold onto seventh place.
Zola is so smooth that even the initials on his tracksuit top are made of felt, but here his side were made of steel, not silk, withstanding the usual barrage of direct balls and unrelenting aggression that is expected at the Britannia, and holding onto the bridgehead established by Diego Tristan in the 32nd minute, all amidst the cantankerous soundtrack of whistling which at points reached pantomime proportions.
Matthew Upson will inspire West Ham for Europe spotIt is no coincidence that 32 of Stoke's 39 points have come at the Britannia. Opposition players simply do not enjoy coming here, for not only is it one of the coldest grounds in the country, it must be one of the loudest too, and as hospitable as a bear pit because of it.
Yesterday was no different, both sets of supporters quickly growing volatile after early goals, one for each side, had been disallowed for little reason. Agitators among the away support began straining against the thin, luminous-yellow line of stewards, who were required to hastily radio for reinforcements.
But it was Tristan, not the newly arrived throng of police, who brought the hostilities to a temporary standstill with a humdinger of a free-kick swept into the top left corner, which demanded at least a brief cease-fire to enjoy such skill.
But the truce didn't last long, and the animosity filtered onto the pitch. As half-time approached, Luis Boa Morte slid into Rory Delap, leaving his studs planted in the Stoke midfielder's groin, showing no urgency in withdrawing them. An infuriated Delap lashed out in retaliation, sheer lunacy as referee Peter Walton was barely three feet away. Both were lucky to escape with cautions.
Stoke, desperate for the three points that would have secured their status in the top tier, were understandably frustrated. They had had their chances. Faye had a header cleared off the line by Mark Noble for starters, and Ricardo Fuller blasted over from seven yards. But West Ham's defence was formidable. 'The resilience of the team was amazing,' Zola agreed, promising more like it. '[Europe] is a possibility, but we will play hard until the end.'