Questions raised by West Ham cup loss
West Ham supporters have had their fair share of cup heartache at the hands of lower-league sides over the years, and although the 5-4 penalty shootout loss to Sheffield United in the Capital One Cup second round on Tuesday was far from being the worst of them, the defeat to a club the fans desperately wanted to beat was galling.
The visiting supporters will have enjoyed the evening, though, despite suffering a torrid night of taunts about Carlos Tevez. Enner Valencia's penalty at the end of extra time was saved comfortably by Mark Howard, allowing Blades captain Michael Doyle to tuck away the fifth spot kick to send Sheffield through and last season's semifinalist out.
Sam Allardyce inevitably came under fire for sending out a team that contained nine changes from the side that comfortably beat Crystal Palace on Saturday. However, it has to be said that the side he fielded should have been good enough to beat a team from League One.
But for a fluke own goal by Winston Reid, the Hammers would have progressed in normal time. Although the East London club lacked punch up front, barring a goal from new signing Diafra Sakho, Sheffield barely mustered a shot on target. Once on level terms, though, the game meandered through to 90 minutes and a lacklustre extra half hour before the lottery of penalties.
Valencia's miss from the spot highlighted an evening of discomfort for the Hammers' expensive summer signing. The Ecuadorian looked uncomfortable playing the lone striker role up front, and early-season concerns about his cost and how exactly he will be used are gathering momentum. Based on Tuesday's performance, Carlton Cole looks likely to get his name first on the team sheet, and that is only a return to the situation that existed at this stage last season.
Elsewhere, it was inevitable that Jussi Jaaskelainen would likely play in the early stages of the cup competitions, but the 39-year-old's lack of mobility probably did the team no good in the shootout. And while Diego Poyet showed great promise and has the look of a wise head on young shoulders, Ravel Morrison seemed to be playing too deep to really influence play. Whether this was a tactic or Morrison simply lacking match fitness wasn't clear, but when Stewart Downing was introduced to replace Sakho, the team looked brighter and more fluid.
Although youngster Reece Burke showed promise in defence, Mohamed Diame had a quiet game, and his inconsistency is becoming a major concern.
Surely the major puzzle must be the inclusion of Ricardo Vaz Te, though. Unfancied by Allardyce last season, the Portuguese forward nearly left for Norwich City. This season, though, Vaz Te has started every game, but it's difficult to understand why.
There is still a strong suggestion that Big Sam isn't entirely sure what his best formation is, and until he's able to decide, inconsistencies are likely to persist. It's a shame for Hammers fans that Sheffield United were able to capitalise on them, but at least the Upton Park faithful can ponder on the fact that -- because of Tevez or otherwise -- these sides are unlikely to be meeting in the league any time in the near future.
Peter Thorne, aka Billy Blagg (@BillyBlaggEsq), is the author of a regular column at WestHamOnline.net and the East London Guardian.