Hammers coast through opener
The first game of a new season; common-sense, logic, statistics and history tell you that it's just another match and nothing that happens in this game necessarily determines the way the season will pan out.
But the football fan's mind is an odd thing. It will remember the times that first game did tell you something about what you could expect for the rest of the campaign -- an opening day 3-0 defeat to Villa in Avram Grant's relegation season still brings me out in a cold sweat -- and conveniently forgets the times when it mattered little (No example of that -- see what I mean?)
So, despite what the respective supporters will tell you, it's West Ham fans who will be happier after this comfortable 2-0 win. The home side looked sharper, slicker, fitter and more resolute than the visitor and Cardiff will perhaps feel a bit chastened after this. Jussi Jaaskelainen will surely have few quieter afternoons than this in 2013-14.
It was a warm, cloudy day at Upton Park and the game started in an obviously raucous manner with both sets of supporters in good voice, but it was the Hammers' faithful who seemed to have stepped up a gear with a host of new songs -- none available for comment here! -- many aimed at the Welsh visitors. Yep, it was that type of afternoon!
Sam Allardyce named a side that looked pretty much like most of those that he fielded last season; new signings Razvan Rat, Stewart Downing and Adrian were all on the bench as were close-season hopefuls Alou Diarra and Ravel Morrison. Matt Jarvis and Joe Cole started and it was these two who combined superbly for West Ham's opener after only 12 minutes. Jarvis got in behind the full-back and crossed low for Cole, almost on the penalty spot. Cole gathered the ball, turned and struck a low shot just inside the post. As an opener, it was a delight.
If Cole felt under any pressure from the new close-season signings, then there was no sign of it. Possibly unburdened by having to have a J in front of the name on his shirt -- his erstwhile colleague Carlton off to pastures new -- this Cole looked like the one sold to Chelsea back in 2003. He dictated play in front of the Cardiff back-four and the only surprise in the first half was that the Hammers only went in one to the good.
Fans realise that managers have to be positive and say the right things sometimes but it was hard to suppress a smile when Bluebirds boss Malky Mackay said post-match that his side 'had to more clinical'. Cardiff barely had a shot to be clinical with, Winston Reid and former Cardiff player James Collins won every loose ball, tackle and header. In fact, had West Ham themselves been sharper in front of goal then Cardiff could have been sunk by half-time, Cole again probably missing the best chance missing an attempted shot/lob when clean through although Mo Diame also came agonisingly close with a superb strike that took a deflection to fly inches wide.
There was plenty of the usual fare available for Hammers fans of all persuasions; for those unconvinced of the Allardyce style, there was the expected collection of agricultural clearances out of defence -- many of them finding their way to the opposition -- but for those who see much to admire in Big Sam's management, there was the site of claret and blue shirts being thrown in front of every attempted shot. This was so successful that Jaaskelainen didn't have a direct save to make all afternoon. In a world full of statistics, I'd be intrigued to see how many shots and passes are charged down by an Allardyce team every season.
The interesting thing is these passages of play -- and let's be honest, they make up a major part of the game -- is that they almost go unnoticed. At one point in the second half, Diame threw himself in front of an attempted forward pass from a Cardiff defender in the Welsh half, the ball cannoning of the Senegalese player and rebounding back to Marshall in the Cardiff goal. As a disruptive ploy, it is fascinating to watch particularly for a Hammers fan fed on years of cultured play but little physical involvement.
Although West Ham were extremely comfortable all afternoon, there was always that worry that a single goal lead taken into the final stages might prompt a Cardiff push, so it was good to see Kevin Nolan opening his account again with a goal 14 minutes from time, effectively killing the game stone-dead as a contest. Downing -- who had come on earlier for Jarvis to make his West Ham debut -- was also involved and supporters will be mightily encouraged by the first appearance of the ex-Liverpool winger on this form, the England International found plenty of room to take on a man and make several dangerous crosses.
This time it was Mark Noble doing the good work though, threading through a ball for the captain to strike sweetly in from 20 yards. The crowd roared, the taunting of the visiting fans increased and Cardiff, with little else to do, took the game to West Ham for the first time, but other than a Peter Whittingham free-kick that went narrowly wide and a half-chance that fell to ex-Hammer Micky Maynard that was ballooned over, there was little to worry the home fans.
So what to make at the end of another season opener? Well, I suspect both sides will probably play better and both sides will certainly play worse. There are some concerns: although Modibo Maiga did well and was involved in some enterprising play -- particularly in the first half -- the Malian still doesn't entirely convince in front of goal and the search for another striker will surely continue.
But it's early days yet; nothing seen today will make anything certain during the coming autumn and winter...will it? Despite it all though, a win on the opening day makes things feel so much better.