Hammers slump at home again
West Ham suffered their ninth home defeat of the season, going down 1-0 to a lively Crystal Palace, who chalked up a league double against their neighbours from the other side of the Thames.
The game was marked by a touching tribute to Dylan Tombides, the 20-year old striker who passed away on Friday from testicular cancer, the minute's applause actually turning into a longer ovation with the fans beginning the salute even before the players joined together in the centre circle where Dylan's family laid one of his shirts. Later, another rapturous ovation began in the 38th minute -- 38 was Dylan's squad number and is being 'retired' as a mark of respect -- that briefly lifted the mood of a quiet home crowd.
The vociferous Palace travelling faithful, buoyed by a recent spate of successive wins, were in excellent voice, though, and tried to lift the moribund atmosphere with chants of "Stand up if you hate Millwall," but the Boleyn crowd barely responded even to join in unison.
There is no doubt that Eagles manager Tony Pulis -- who if there is any justice would scoop the manager of the season award -- has transformed the south London club who looked to be certain to drop straight back to the Championship earlier in the season, but Sam Allardyce will surely view a solitary-goal, home and away defeat as a poor return for his own club against Palace and, if he doesn't, the fans certainly showed their own displeasure, leaving the Boleyn in droves before the final whistle.
The game itself was fairly entertaining, but it became apparent very early on that the match was going to be a tight affair and was unlikely to be decided in open play. As in midweek, the Hammers played two wingers for Andy Carroll -- Stewart Downing on one side and Matt Jarvis on the other -- with returning captain Kevin Nolan tucking in behind his strike partner. On paper it looks a good attacking formation and Jarvis in particular had an excellent game; a constant threat on the flank, but too often the players look rigid and lack purpose going forward. Manager and board must surely know they need some big summer signings to stop a repeat of the malaise next season.
The view from the back row of the Bobby Moore upper stand can be a good place to see the tactical part of the game and the lack of movement was palpable during the first half even when West Ham had good possession. So often a ball played back is strung along the defence from full-back to centre-half while Winston Reid and James Tomkins -- both good ball-playing central defenders -- search for a decisive pass or an opportunity to bring the ball forward. Up front though, the players are marked and nobody seems capable of breaking play or finding space and the ball is often hit wide to the wings or given away as the crowd voice their frustration.
The shame of it is that Sam Allardyce seems to have shrugged off the need to punt long -- the tactic that brought him so much criticism when his side were booed off against ten man Hull a few weeks back -- but that game ended in a victory for his side, while the team have struggled since the away win at Sunderland that seemed to have bought them Premier League safety. It's not difficult to see the manager reverting to the long game if he hasn't got the personnel to play any other way.
In an enterprising first half, Palace could point to a couple of good blocks by Carroll and Nolan that stopped them going ahead, Kagisho Dikgacoi going even closer with a header that slid past the far post. At the other end, Diame saw a good thumping shot tipped over by Palace keeper Julian Speroni before a low drive was parried well with the same players involved. In between, crowd and Carroll appealed loudly for a shove in the area and the big Geordie was later denied by another excellent stop from the Palace keeper, keeping out a typical Carroll bullet header.
The decisive point in the game came just under the hour, the referee pointing to the spot after Pablo Armero had brought down Cameron Jerome on the edge of the penalty area; Mile Jedinak striking home a perfect spot-kick. The Hammers were now all over the place and Palace could have gone further ahead six minutes later as they found space several times in the penalty area in a minute of madness as the West Ham defence made mistake after mistake in trying to clear the ball.
Abuse was hurled down to Allardyce when he inexplicably took off the excellent Jarvis for Carlton Cole after 70 minutes and chants of "You don't know what you're doing" rolled down from all sides of the ground. Joe Cole came on for Downing -- the player who should have been taken off earlier -- and the crowd jeered the ex-Liverpool and England player as he made his way to the bench. At least the two Coles looked lively and offered a vague chance that something could be created although the ineffective Nolan, who came off on 85 minutes to be replaced by Antonio Nocerino, really should also have gone earlier.
The last part of the game petered out, though, and it was apparent long before the end that West Ham had run out of ideas if not steam. As the crowd filed out, news came through from results elsewhere that indicated a solitary point will be enough to make West Ham's safety a mathematical certainty, it seems highly likely though that the Hammers already have enough points and there is already a feel at Upton Park that the main focus is now next season's penultimate campaign at the Boleyn.
There's been a lot of frustration, discontent and uncertainty this season but events over the last few days have shown the real meaning of pain and heartache, and it does no-one any harm to remember life's real tragedy.