Aston Villa 0 – 0 West Ham
By Phil Dawkes
Villa’s Agbonlahor is tackled by West Ham defender Tomkins
Struggling West Ham claimed a vital away point as they frustrated Champions League hopefuls Aston Villa in an uninspiring draw at Villa Park.
Villa were stifled by West Ham’s five-man midfield, and the visitors could have taken an early lead only for Frank Nouble to fire over from 12 yards.
After the break, Villa’s James Milner clipped the post with a 20-yard drive and James Collins volleyed wide.
Villa applied late pressure but were denied by a resolute Hammers defence.
Martin O’Neill’s Villa side have gone about their pursuit of the top four in comparatively low-key fashion, certainly in comparison to some of their rivals for a place in Europe.
But they came into this match having lost their two previous Premier League matches – to Liverpool and Arsenal – and the draw will do little to make up the ground they lost as a result as they stay in sixth place.
They had the best of a largely poor game, but were unable to break down an impressive West Ham backline.
Be it takeover talks off the pitch or a relegation battle on it, the Hammers are rarely out of the media limelight at present.
Negotiations with a quartet of suitors interested in a buyout rumble on with no resolution in sight, but a repeat of this hard-working and committed performance could see them avoid their battle with relegation becoming a similarly protracted affair.
As a result of this point they have climbed to 16th place in the league and even if Bolton win later on Sunday to overtake them they will end the weekend out of the relegation zone.
They have struggled all season with injuries, particularly in attack, and although they were able to welcome back both Mark Noble and Scott Parker in midfield, they lack a scutting edge without leading scorers Carlton Cole and Guillermo Franco.
As a statement of their ambition at Villa Park, they dropped striker Alessandro Diamanti to the bench and replaced him with Jack Collison in a reinforced midfield designed to suffocate the home side.
For much of the first half they did just that as Villa were stifled, and harried into a series of misplaced passes.
With their stall set out, the visitors created the first chance of the match.
Nouble collected on the half way line and scythed through the Villa defence and into the box but his shot was woefully high, affected partly by the sliding challenge of Carlos Cuellar.
On the 25 minute mark, Villa finally found some cohesion in the final third and but for Robert Green in the West Ham goal would have taken the lead.
Ashley Young found space on the left and his cross come shot was looping into the far corner until Green palmed away and then a minute later Gabriel Agbonlahor was allowed to swivel and shoot in the box only for the England keeper to parry to safety.
Villa continued to apply pressure for the rest of the half but had only a Collins header, put over from a Young corner, to show for it.
The home side started the second half with purpose and were almost rewarded when Emile Heskey teed up Milner to shoot from 25 yards but his effort grazed the outside of Green’s left-hand post and went wide.
Minutes later, Villa floated over a free-kick and from Matthew Upson’s defensive header Collins volleyed just wide.
Villa briefly thought they had broken the deadlock on the hour when substitute John Carew bundled in after Green had saved from Stewart Downing but referee Mike Jones ruled that the striker had kicked the ball out of the keeper’s hands.
West Ham could have stolen a much-needed win late on when the ball found its way to substitute Junior Stanislas, who drove in a cross that was fortuitously cleared over his own bar by Collins.
The final chance of the match fell to Agbonlahor, who broke free of his marker inside the box but Green was quick out to block before the striker could pull the trigger.