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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Malik Ouzia

West Ham denied win over Aston Villa by VAR but pressing display offers real promise

On the evidence of West Ham’s tactical setup most weeks, one could be forgiven for presuming that David Moyes has about as much regard for the press as Donald Trump.

At their best, his teams sit in, suck you in, then pounce. At their worst, they’re a passive bunch who let you do more or less as you please. Seldom, in either form, are they the protagonists, rarely dictating that the piece’s primary action take place in the opposition half.

Here, though, was something different, West Ham for 45 minutes the suffocating force in a match-up that might ordinarily have invited Moyes to revert to that counter-punching Plan A.

Had they not done just that after the break, at which Michail Antonio’s header had them in front, Moyes’s side might well have claimed the victory that would have moved them within a point of Manchester United in sixth.

Instead, Unai Emery’s clever substitutions sparked an improved Aston Villa display, the introductions of Matty Cash and Moussa Diaby forcing the Hammers back and Moyes into the concession of replacing his goalscorer with the energy of Ben Johnson in a bid to hold on.

West Ham thought they had snatched all three points (Getty Images)

Eventually, another substitute, Nicolo Zaniolo, squeezed home to grab the point that, following Tottenham’s defeat at Fulham, sees the balance of the top-four race shift slightly once more.

For Moyes, an afternoon that bodes well for the final stretch of the season ahead ended in fury, his team denied a winner deep into stoppage time after a ridiculous six-minute VAR check eventually located Tomas Soucek’s handball.

Despite their second-half drop-off, victory would have been due reward for the confidence and conviction with which West Ham played up until half-time.

Both they and what, on these post-European Sundays in particular, can be a sleepy London Stadium were notably enlivened by Thursday night’s 5-0 thrashing of Freiburg.

Aston Villa came here with similar momentum, having despatched Ajax on home turf to reach a quarter-final of their own, but were swamped in the opening period by a front-footed Hammers showing, capped by Antonio’s first goal since August.

That breakthrough, on 29 minutes, was not in isolation exactly a West Ham novelty, Vladimir Coufal’s seventh assist of a fine season whipped onto the head of the diving forward. The period that preceded it, however, was, the Hammers pressing high up the pitch to pin Villa inside their own half for a sustained spell in a manner Moyes’s side rarely tend to manage against the division’s strugglers, never mind a team pushing for the Champions League.

Michael Antonio ended his long wait for a goal (Getty Images)

In the visiting goal, Emi Martinez struggled to pick his targets as the claret home shirts swarmed, Unai Emery in a state of frenzy on the touchline as the Argentine repeatedly sprayed the ball away.

Behind the pressing front-four, Edson Alvarez was outstanding, covering the inevitable spaces at the base midfield to keep the heat on, while Konstantinos Mavropanos did a fine job nipping in front of Ollie Watkins to deny the forward chance to hold the ball up and release the pressure.

Alvarez would later collect his tenth booking of the campaign, the two-game suspension that lies ahead a major headache for Moyes and, perhaps, a route to redemption for Kalvin Phillips.

Only once did the Hammers’s new zeal prove detrimental, and then harshly so, Antonio’s attempt to disrupt the shaky Martinez deemed a foul and the whistle blown a fraction before Mohammed Kudus fired through the goalkeeper for what would have been a second goal.

Soon after the restart, Antonio was penalised again, this time VAR spotting his feint touch to divert Jarrod Bowen’s inswinging corner home had come off the Jamaican's forearm.

Had either stood, West Ham’s cushion might have been sufficient, but of the two tiring teams it was Villa who best seized second-wind, Zaniolo’s equaliser signposted a way out.

Late winners, though, have been West Ham’s currency through much of the season and Soucek usually the man with cash in hand. Alas, here that was the problem, referee Jarred Gillet kept waiting for five minutes before at last being summoned to the pitchside monitor, where he spotted a close-range deflection off the midfielder’s arm.

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