Time to be taken seriously
West Ham 0-1 ArsenalWith my disguise in place and after a slow deep breath, The Insider's long awaited return to Upton Park was upon us.
Regular readers of this column may remember my most recent visit to this East End outpost caused something of a stir, with threats of retributions posted in the Soccernet forums after the suggestion that this club's chief contribution to the Premier League was it's thuggish fans and their 'camp' bubble blowing anthem.
The predictable threats of violence towards Soccernet's humble reporter merely served to confirm the belief that irony and sarcasm were sentiments the less intelligent members of the Boleyn Stadium faithful fail to comprehend, yet the observer at the centre of the storm was determined to return with an open mind to the scene of his 'crime'.
As ever, the walk from Upton Park station was akin to a stroll down Baghdad high street, with the odd mix of East End thugs and local Arab businesses hardly seeming to fit together, even in a multi-cultural Briton. Put it this way, it's always a relief to reach the press room door at the Boleyn Ground still being able to claim you own a laptop!
So while some things will never change, there cannot be any doubt that the West Ham side competing against Arsenal in September 2007 is a very different beast to the flaky and fragile outfit that started this calendar year in such woeful fashion. Manager Alan Curbishley had to overcome plenty of criticism from Hammers 'fans' in his first few months at the helm of the club, but he has built a squad that should be more than capable of challenging for a top eight place this season.
Scott Parker, Lucas Neill and Matthew Upson were the sort of solid signings so badly needed and even though they quickly appreciated they were a long way behind rampant Arsenal in this London derby, the signs of a genuine revival at West Ham could still be detected.
Starting this game looking to win their eighth successive game, Arsenal wasted just 12 minutes to pierce the West Ham defence for the first time. Clicking into their passing style effortlessly, they had threatened on a couple of occasions before making the breakthrough as Alex Hleb's well floated cross was converted by Robin van Persie's header.
For all their endeavour, West Ham just couldn't get a foothold in the opening half and while Arsenal rarely looked like extending their lead, the ease with which they held the home side at bay was telling.
And while Van Persie may grab the headlines for his winning goal, the man who has filled Thierry Henry's considerable boots at Arsenal is, in fact, Emmanuel Adebayor.
The leggy forward has often been compared to Portsmouth striker Kanu, but he is rapidly developing into the most mobile and powerful front man in the league. Showing pace and power that unsettled West Ham from the off, he was a real handful.
While West Ham had chances to claim a point in this game after an improved performance in the 20 minutes after the break, you always felt Arsenal could slip up a gear if required. Indeed, West Ham keeper Rob Green could well have been the man of the match after he denied Van Persie, Adebayor and Cesc Fabregas in the second half.
So Arsenal's impressive start to the season shows no signs of abating, yet this report was designed to focus on the Hammers and there were some positives to be found in the face of a disappointing home reverse against a side they love to beat, as Dean Ashton proved again he is a real force to be reckoned with up front.
After suffering a harrowing ankle injury that kept him out of action for a year, Ashton is starting to find his feet again and even though he missed a second half sitter when presented with a free header in the box, he was a physical threat to Arsenal throughout. He also gave West Ham the option of hitting the ball long in the second half and it may be a sign of Arsenal's progress that such agricultural tactics did not unsettle them as it has done in the past.
The Hammers defence looked reasonably solid against the Arsenal attacking machine and they could have collected a point had Freddie Ljungberg's second half goal not been ruled out by a linesman's flag and it was with that controversy that Curbishley opened his press briefing.
'I'm told Freddie was onside when he had a goal ruled out so that is disappointing,' he said. 'We came back at Arsenal in the second half and it would have been great to get the point, but we made it hard for ourselves by showing they too much respect early on.
'I said to the players at half-time that we couldn't let them settle back and get their heads up because if you allow Arsenal to play, they will hurt you. They got themselves a goal in front and with the pace and power they have on the break, that was always going to be a difficult position to recover from.'
Arsene Wenger was in bullish mood as he predicted his young table toppers would last the pace in the title race and on the evidence of the first few games this season, he has every reason to feel confident.
'I have always said that we can challenge for the championship this season and maybe more of you will start to believe me now,' he said with a smile. 'We are still young, so we will face some challenges that will be a test for us and we had to overcome a long ball game from West Ham. In the past, such tactics have caused us problems, so this win proves we are maturing.
'We have not won at this ground for a long time and even though there is some room for improvement, I'm very proud of what this team is doing. We are playing some great football and should have won this game by more than one goal.'
My main gripe with West Ham fans in the contentious report of late March was that the club has long had delusions of grandeur, with their confused belief that they won the World Cup for England in 1966 blurring the reality that they are little more than a minor club compared to the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham in this capital city.
That fact remains the case to this day, but there is a sense that the traumatic few months which saw them escape relegation on the pitch and then again in the courts after the Carlos Tevez affair has brought some balance to a few minds.
The supporters attending this game today didn't seem ready to threaten death to their neighbour every time a West Ham player lost control of the ball and there were no jeers as their latest defeat was confirmed. Reality has struck home for a club so often confused by its true standing in the game and that is no bad thing.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Emmanuel Adebayor
A powerhouse performance from the striker Arsene Wenger believes can fill Thierry Henry's boots. He was a real handful for West Ham.
PRESS BOX MAYHEM: The Premier League have introduced a system enforcing all who wish to attend games in a working capacity need to prove they are genuine working journalists. Clearly West Ham are ignoring this plan as there were dozens of free-loading tourists in the box for this London derby.
FOOD WATCH: West Ham have never covered themselves in glory when it comes to press room food, but they put on a decent pre-match chilli and rice dish on this occasion.
WEST HAM VERDICT: Add Craig Bellamy to this side and West Ham would have boasted an attacking threat to really test Arsenal and Curbishley must be excited by the prospect of Ashton and the fiery Welshman linking up. They were not good enough to ruffle Arsenal's pristine feathers, but they can at least be recognised as a serious Premier League team this season.