West Ham slumped to a successive away defeat, losing 3-1 to a Stoke City side who have done the double over the Hammers this season. The home side were probably good value for their win, although Sam Allardyce was rightly angry after the match about both poor defending by his side and also a howler from referee Craig Pawson that could have levelled the game late on.
The shame of it was, West Ham had started very brightly and had taken an early lead after five minutes, Andy Carroll nodding in his first goal of the season -- and who'd have thought we'd be saying that in March? -- from a lofted Mark Noble free-kick. Stoke battled back to equalise half-way through the first period, Peter Crouch following up his first header that came back off a corner, to see his shot nudge Peter Odemwingie's shoulder to go in. City might be arguing about who should be credited with the goal, but Sam Allardyce is more likely to be concerned with how slowly his defence reacted to Crouch's first shot.
Even so, West Ham could have gone ahead early in the second half when excellent interplay between Kevin Nolan and Carroll found the big forward getting in a low shot that Stoke keeper Asmir Begovich expertly diverted over the bar with his legs.
Just after the hour, though, came the controversial moment; Nolan being ruled offside after he'd poked the ball home. The captain was furious as he believed -- as did most of the reporting media immediately after the incident -- that a Stoke player on the floor had played him on. However, later TV evidence showed that Begovic had advanced so far for the initial ball that Nolan was indeed off-side with only one player between him and the goal.
It proved to be a pivotal point, though, as Stoke went ahead on 69 minutes when Marko Arnautovic put the home side ahead with a mazy run that had elements of both skill and luck. The build-up involving Stephen Ireland was exceptional, but once the ball came through to Arnautovi five yards outside the area, the West Ham defence failed to close down the player or get a tackle in, the closest being when the ball flicked off the heel of Winston Reid to lay the opportunity back into the path of the Stoke player.
Once again, the Hammers defence will feel they should have done better and even keeper Adrian may think he should have done more with the low shot that seemed to bobble over his outstretched hand.
Four minutes later, West Ham were denied a blatant penalty when Marc Muniesa handled a high ball destined for the head of Carroll. Quite why none of the officials seemed to think it worthy of a spot kick is difficult to say; the arm was raised intentionally and in full view of all the offcials, but nothing came of it.
"No way a penalty," referee Pawson was shown to be saying on later TV replays. "Way a penalty," screamed the Hammers and probably every neutral in the country.
Stoke manager Mark Hughes opined afterwards that his player was trying to compete with Carroll in the air -- an interesting concept as, if allowed, it should give even the tallest defender an extra couple of feet to help deal with any aerial assault -- but his assertion that Stoke would have gone on to win anyway had the penalty been given and converted might be optimistic in view of how West Ham chased the game once 2-1 down. There's little doubt an equaliser at that time would have drastically changed the way Allardyce would have viewed the rest of the match.
As it was, with West Ham piling on the pressure, a high ball into the area where Carroll and substitute Carlton Cole led a host of claret and blue shirts in waiting, saw Ryan Shawcross head out to Ireland, the Stoke midfielder -- in because Stoke were missing both Charlie Adam and Jonathan Walters -- sprinted half the length of the pitch before slipping the ball through. Odemwingie struck the ball high into the net to seal the points. Half of the West Ham team were still streaming back from the attack as the ball entered the goal. It was a classic counter-attack: the type of thing that delights when your team do it but sickens when it's your opponents.
A post-match comment on TV suggested West Ham were lucky not to concede more as the game wore on, but that assessment seemed a little harsh. Nevertheless, this was a disappointing result that leaves West Ham again nervously looking over their shoulders. With Manchester United at Upton Park next week, Allardyce will be looking to try and get something from the improving champions as a third successive defeat will put a lot of pressure on his side in the following games.
With the way this season has gone, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that it's not yet time to breath easily after all.