Grant's vision becoming blurred
Gallows humour tends to be the preserve of the struggling, but that was before West Ham added slapstick to the equation. As a fifth successive defeat loomed, a frustrated Avram Grant tried to hurl his notes towards the dugout. Instead, the Mancunian breeze captured them and took them past the startled Israeli, scattering his thoughts across the Eastlands turf. It was one way of getting Grant's ideas onto the pitch, but not quite the right one. It was sadly symptomatic of a sorry season.
And so another one of Grant's masterplans ended in failure: 35 down, three to go. Salvation may lie in a fixture list that means Blackburn, Wigan and Sunderland are West Ham's remaining opponents but it will require a marked and immediate improvement for them to stay up. On a weekend where six of the bottom seven teams took at least a point, they were the exceptions, the side whose plight worsened.
Their fate is not sealed, but the eminently avoidable relegations are the most excruciating. The teams branded 'too good to go down' but who then defy that description are those with most to lament. "West Ham are a much-better team than their position in the league," said Manchester City's Vincent Kompany. Indeed, despite a season-long struggle, on paper they have the raw ingredients for a top-10 finish. Not all were present at Eastlands, but whatever the raw materials, West Ham have rarely had the chemistry required.
Minus the footballer of the year, Scott Parker, they were condemned to defeat in paradoxical fashion: seemingly out of the game after conceding twice in a quarter of an hour, they halved the deficit yet allowed the match to drift away, as though this were a meaningless end-of-season encounter.
If West Ham were 75% down beforehand, according to co-owner David Sullivan, now their chances of survival might be down to 20%. Sullivan's belief that some of his overpaid players aren't fully committed may have been reinforced when Matthew Upson, the captain who is out of contract in the summer, limped off after 25 minutes.
It was 25 minutes longer than Sullivan lasted, though: none of the West Ham board turned up. "We're all in this together," a phrase bandied around in politics, may be incorrect there; it certainly seems to be at Upton Park. Togetherness, at least, is a strength of City's. Two unselfish workers for the collective cause, Nigel de Jong and Pablo Zabaleta, scored the goals that mean a further six points will guarantee a top-four finish.
De Jong's was the greater surprise, a controlled drive from 20 yards ending his 93-game, 28-month wait for a City goal. Then West Ham became the first team ever to miss Wayne Bridge as the left side of their defence was exposed by the overlapping Zabaleta, found perfectly by David Silva, with a delightful and delicate lob. The subsequent goal was a combination of the respective right-backs; Zabaleta's shot was going in, but the sliding Lars Jacobsen's despairing attempts to stop it resulted in him turning the ball over the line.
"Probably after these two goals, we thought it was finished," admitted Roberto Mancini. Instead Grant claimed: "We had a great comeback." There was more than a hint of hyperbole to that. Robbie Keane should have got a goal back, with Joe Hart denying him. Demba Ba did. Having proven his goalscoring prowess, the striker was relocated to the left as, with a 2-1 deficit, Grant opted to reinforce the midfield at the expense of his attack. Meanwhile, City kept on creating, and missing, chances with Mario Balotelli hitting the bar and having a shot cleared off the line by James Tomkins.
"There are lot of positive things to take for the next game. The last two games [Chelsea and City], everybody saw we deserved more," Grant insisted before, as is his wont, listing the absent players, the ineligible Bridge and the injured Parker, Mark Noble and Gary O'Neil. As even he conceded, however, the time for excuses is almost over. "We have no time to recover," he admitted. "I think it will be between seven to nine [points needed]."
The numbers are starting to dominate his rhetoric, though his pre-match assertions had appeared odd. "It's money time now," Grant had said, sounding like a high-roller in Las Vegas, rather than a low achiever in East London. The finances in question may be £40 million deficit in their budget next year, should they be relegated, or indeed the pay-off for Grant, if and when he is sacked.
But then this threatens to be a year when expensive consequences, a season when plans have backfired and West Ham have regressed. As they left Eastlands, it was with Grant's schemes dispersed across the grass, his answers to their problems blowing in the wind.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Pablo Zabaleta - Solid in defence, energetic in his efforts along the right flank and a deserved goalscorer, the Argentine at least ensured that, for once, this award doesn't go to the ever excellent David Silva.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: The Champions League spot is almost theirs but, while others have chipped in with goals in Carlos Tevez's absence, Balotelli's erratic display showed it will be a relief when the captain is fit again. Both goalscorers sustained injuries, but neither are serious.
WEST HAM VERDICT: Danny Gabbidon escaped a suspension this week for his comments on Twitter but, on the basis of his performance, West Ham could have been forgiven for wishing he was banned. For all Grant's positivity, much rests on Parker's return to fitness for the last three games.