Dean Ashton's electrifying eleventh goal of the season gave West Ham United the point that guaranteed them a terrific top-half finish on an afternoon when Aston Villa saw their UEFA Cup dreams shattered.
The club's top-scorer bagged a late leveller to earn a share of the points after Nolberto Solano's brilliantly executed fourth goal of the campaign had been wiped out by Ashley Young and Gareth Barry. Kicking off in tenth place, Alan Curbishley made two changes to the side that had lost at this season's recrowned champions Manchester United last Saturday, as fit-again Anton Ferdinand and ex-Villa Park wide man Solano came in for John Pantsil and Hayden Mullins, who both took their places on the bench alongside Richard Wright, Freddie Sears and another former Villain, Carlton Cole.
Ironically, 12 months ago, Curbishley's men had travelled to Old Trafford with their Premier League lives hanging in the balance but, one year on from their dramatic Survival Sunday victory over the champions, they now came into Match 38 looking to cement that top-half finish. Without a league win at the Boleyn Ground on any of their previous eight visits, Martin O'Neill's side needed victory in the sun-drenched East End and an Everton defeat at home to Newcastle United, if they were to leapfrog the Merseysiders and claim a coveted UEFA Cup spot.
Following last weekend's shock home defeat by wobbling Wigan Athletic, the Midlanders named an unchanged side that included Nigel Reo-Coker in the starting line-up with Marlon Harewood on the bench. With just three minutes on the clock, the breaking former West Ham United skipper crafted out the first chance of the game, when he released Gabriel Agbonlahor, whose cut-back then eluded the supporting Reo-Coker on its way to the overlapping Ashley Young, who scooped a ten-yarder on to Hammer of the Year Robert Green's right-hand upright.
On seven minutes, however, Scott Carson was not so fortunate, when Ferdinand was tripped on the edge of the area and Solano brilliantly swept the consequent free-kick over the Villa wall and across the outstretched left glove of the diving keeper to send the home fans amongst the sell-out 34,969 crowd into raptures. After Scott Parker was cautioned for a foul on Stiliyan Petrov, it was the other set of claret and blue fans who were celebrating when Reo-Coker's 13th-minute pass picked out Young, who steered a low, angled 15-yard shot across the face of Green and just inside the keeper's right-hand post to equalise.
Midway through the half, Petrov's low cross into the six-yard box was slid wide by John Carew under pressure from the ever-reliable, ever-present George McCartney, with a challenge that showed just why he had been voted into second spot in that player of the year poll. After Agbonlahor lashed a shot into the Bobby Moore stand, Olof Mellberg - bidding arrivederci to Villa ahead of a summer mover to Juventus - then collected a leaving card from referee Mike Dean for a clumsy, high tackle on Luis Boa Morte. In reply, Solano saw another free-kick loop over the top off the Villa wall, before Mark Noble and Boa Morte tried their luck from range and, in the dying seconds of an end-to-end first half, Zamora's thunderous 18-yarder agonisingly flew just an inch or so wide.
Pantsil replaced McCartney for the restart and shortly afterwards the bulldozing Boa Morte forced Carson to save his low 20-yarder. With their hopes of European qualification still alive, Villa pressed too, when the pacy Agbonlahor cut-back into the danger zone, where Green showed all his England credentials to smother Carew's point-blank shot before Petrov was booked for diving in the ensuing melee.
With the visiting pressure building, Carew was denied again when Noble hacked the Norwegian international's header off the line and then Barry drilled across the face of goal. On 57 minutes, Green pulled off another outstanding parry to thwart Reo-Coker but this time fortune fell Villa's way as the backing-up Barry seized on the loose ball and lashed a 12-yarder into the unguarded net.
Villa may have seized the initiative, but West Ham United were still not out of the contest and, as the hour mark passed, Solano's corner was met by Ashton, who saw his header nodded off the line by Petrov. Seconds later, Carson was a mere spectator again when Boa Morte crossed from the left and Zamora sent a powerful header crashing back off the beaten 'keeper's crossbar.
With a quarter-hour remaining, Cole replaced Zamora and, after Green bravely stopped Carew at the expense of an accidental boot in the face, Sears came on for Noble as Curbishley went for a three-pronged attack. It was a switch that paid dividends, for after Ashton ripped a shot into the side-netting, he made no mistake second time around, when he collected the ball and let fly with a simply unstoppable 18-yarder.