WEST HAM UNITED 0 ASTON VILLA 1
For confirmation of why the country’s most moribund soap opera gets even more depressing during the festive season, try recording over the EastEnders Christmas special with the highlights from this match.
A rerun of Saturday’s game will reveal precisely why real-life residents of London’s East End, let alone their fictional representations, would be contemplating hurling themselves down the old apples and pears.
West Ham’s unhappy Hammers deserved a happy ending by the time the credits rolled on a captivating drama at Upton Park on Saturday evening, only for Martin O’Neill’s men to prove even greater villains than the Mitchell brothers.
Yet while the soap opera that is West Ham United plunges further into the depths of despair, the travelling roadshow of Aston Villa gets more and more exciting by the week.
Villa’s sixth away win of the season was nowhere near their most convincing and their manager acknowledged that they were never going to reach the heights of their Arsenal success.
However, for the second trip running, Villa completed the kind of smash and grab that police forces warn about when advising shoppers not to leave valuables on display in vehicles at this time of year.
O’Neill himself took the chance to put his valuables on display in the form of the eight first-teamers who were rested for the Uefa Cup trip to Hamburg – and the manager admitted some of his returning players were “priceless”.
Brad Friedel was surely one of the men O’Neill was referring to as the veteran keeper rolled back the years with a performance which prompted comparisons with Peter Schmeichel, Pat Jennings and Peter Shilton from the boss.
Friedel made light of his 37 years to show the reflexes of a stopper half his age and, after shipping seven goals in his past two league games, the clean sheet was just reward for the American hero.
James Milner, too, also got what was, in his manager’s opinion, his due with a stroke of luck associated with teams destined for a season of success.
Going into the game the former Newcastle winger had yet to open his goals account during his second spell at Villa – and that remains the case after the 78th-minute winner was awarded to the unfortunate Lucas Neill.
Milner can have no complaints because the West Ham defender’s deflection was crucial in completely changing the trajectory of the England Under-21 winger’s hopeful cross from the left-flank.
It mattered not, according to O’Neill, because the goal still represented a well-earned Christmas present for a player who has impressed England coach Fabio Capello in recent weeks despite playing while suffering from flu.
The flukes that West Ham are suffering might be harder to shake off, especially if they continue to miss so many goal-scoring chances.
Friedel was responsible for keeping out two first-half efforts from Craig Bellamy, whose pace caused Villa plenty of problems, the second save with his shovel- like left-hand being particularly impressive.
Villa’s No.?1 produced similar heroics to deny Carlton Cole on two occasions from close range, once with the help of Luke Young, while the former Blackburn keeper also kept out a cracking effort from Valon Behrami and made a late save from CalumDavenport.
Cole, once a claret and blue wearer for Villa as a loanee from Chelsea, also contrived to nod over a great opportunity at the far post from Neill’s cross, while a host of headed chances from set-pieces came and went, with ex-Birmingham City defender Matt Upson the chief culprit.
If West Ham controlled the second half, then the first period had been an equal affair, with Milner failing to supply a ruthless enough finish to a sweeping counter attack which involved Stiliyan Petrov, Gareth Barry and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Hammers keeper Robert Green thwarted Villa on that occasion and did so again seconds later to get a hand to Barry’s curling effort, while Ashley Young spurned the chance of the match when he waltzed past Green but hit the post from a tight angle after Scott Parker’s loose ball had gifted himpossession.
Steve Sidwell also fired two good opportunities wide after being teed up by Young and then Agbonlahor, who themselves threatened with half chances after the interval.
A slight injury worry to Carlos Cuellar, whose premature departure allowed the home fans to goad his replacement and unpopular West Ham old-boy Nigel Reo-Coker, was the only blot on another productive away day for Villa.
The Hammers, however, were left looking every bit as miserable as the inhabitants of Albert Square.