Late first half goals from Valon Behrami and Mark Noble saw West Ham United safely through to the FA Cup fifth round with a 2-0 win at Hartlepool United.
The Swiss midfielder drove a low shot past Arran Lee-Barrett 90 seconds before the break. Noble then doubled the Hammers' advantage from the penalty spot deep in added time after home captain Michael Nelson was penalised for handball, although the offence appeared to take place outside the 18-yard box. The spot-kick was Noble's third successful penalty in the last four matches.
Gianfranco Zola was true to his word in naming a strong starting lineup to take on the Monkey Hangers, making just two changes to the side that beat Fulham 3-1 in the Premier League last Sunday. Captain Lucas Neill dropped to the substitutes bench at Victoria Park, while Matthew Upson was rested. Into their places came Julien Faubert and England Under-19 defender James Tomkins, who made his FA Cup debut.
Up until Behrami's opener, League One Hartlepool had matched their opponents on what was the first meeting between the two clubs, causing Robert Green and his defence more than a few scares. At the other end, Herita Ilunga was a constant threat down the left flank.
The first goalmouth action came in just the second minute when Nelson, at full stretch, could only divert Faubert's cross on to the top of his own crossbar. Four minutes later, Noble ended a neat passing move by curling a shot narrowly wide from 20 yards.
Any visiting supporter who might have thought West Ham United were in for an easy passage were quickly proved wrong, however, as the home side came back strongly. First, man of the match Scott Parker was required to stab Michael Mackay's goalbound header off the line, then Andy Monkhouse fired two left-foot shots narrowly wide.
The real drama came late in the half, however, as Carlton Cole and home goalkeeper Lee-Barrett became embroiled in a personal battle. Lee-Barrett made two fine saves to thwart the in-form striker, who was then booked for a sliding challenge on the goalkeeper. Ilunga was also shown a yellow card for his role in the ensuing melee.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 44th minute, however. Di Michele fed Collison inside the penalty area, the Wales midfielder skipped past one challenge but when tackled by a second defender, the ball broke to Behrami, who drove it into Lee-Barrett's bottom right corner from the edge of the box.
Three minutes later, the Hammers doubled their lead in controversial circumstances. There was no doubt that Nelson handled Cole's flick-on, but the offence appeared to take place outside the penalty area, Referee Lee Mason pointed to the spot, however, and Noble made no mistake from 12 yards.
After such a dramatic end to the opening 45 minutes, the early part of the second half was tame by comparison, with Hartlepool probing for a way back into the tie. Despite some neat build-up play, however, the visitors held firm.
Collins, who made numerous important blocks and clearances, was booked for a foul on the dangerous Australian Joel Porter on the hour-mark as the Monkey Hangers continued to press, and their reward nearly arrived on 62 minutes when Green did brilliantly to divert Gary Liddle's powerful header over the crossbar.
Zola responded by bringing on the hard-working Luis Boa Morte for Collison, but the hosts continued to hold the upper hand and came close again when Ritchie Jones curled a 25-yard effort narrowly over the top to the frustration of the majority of the 6,849-strong crowd.
The Hammers attempted to take the sting out of the game by keeping possession themselves and the tactic nearly led to a third goal of their own. However, Lee-Barrett was on hand to deny Cole again, this time diverting the striker's shot on to the outside of the post after he had streaked clear of the home defence.
Hayden Mullins and Freddie Sears - who fired over late on - were sent on to replace Di Michele and Cole as the Hammers comfortably played out the final few minutes to go through to the last-16 for the first time since the club reached the final in 2006..
West Ham United are now unbeaten away from home in seven matches, a run stretching back to 29 October, and will be full of confidence heading into Wednesday evening's Premier League visit of Hull City to the Boleyn Ground.
Before that, the fifth round draw takes place on Sunday at 6.15pm, live on Setanta Sports.