Sam Allardyce praised Wellington Phoenix after the A-League side edged out West Ham United 2-1 in Auckland.

The Hammers suffered defeat in the opening game of their two-match Football United Tour of New Zealand, falling two goals behind at half-time before substitute Mauro Zarate pulled one back late on.

Andrew Durante lost his marker to nod the Phoenix = whose loyal supporters are known as the 'Yellow Fever' - in front before former Sunderland midfielder Alex Gorrin fired in a superb second from outside the penalty area.

West Ham should have scored both before and after those goals, but neither Carlton Cole nor Cheikhou Kouyate could find a way past an inspired Glen Moss - Winston Reid's New Zealand international team-mate - in the Phoenix goal.

The Hammers improved after the break and halved their deficit through Zarate's superb touch and accurate finish before the impressive Stewart Downing was denied a late equaliser by replacement stopper Lewis Italiano.

There was to be no comeback, though, and Big Sam felt his side had neither competed well enough, nor showed the requisite technical skills required to defeat their opponents.

At the same time, he conceded that the Phoenix had taken full advantage of his own players' intense pre-season schedule by pressing and competing relentlessly throughout a lively 90 minutes at Eden Park.

"We're 20 days into our pre-season and I think that we are disappointed with the first half performance, when we were caught cold by the Phoenix," admitted Big Sam. "They showed a great attitude and played at a tempo that we had a little struggle keeping tabs with and that's where we lost the two goals.

"We are finding our feet and finding our fitness with each game but we certainly didn't find our standard, whereas the Phoenix hit their standard and they competed as we expected them to.

"They shut us down high up the pitch and I thought they did that exceptionally well. They knocked us out of our stride but, saying that, we should have scored the first goal when Carlton Cole took a cutback from Matt Jarvis.

"We then should have scored just before half-time when it fell to Cheikh and that was the difference between the two teams - they took their two chances and we didn't. They scored through a header at the near post and the strike in the bottom corner for the second was the way I was expecting us to be finishing.

"We tried to come back in the second half and got a little bit better. I had to change the team because of the fatigue that kicked into the players because we've been working extremely hard.

"After our journey we've been training every day, morning and afternoon, because we've got to get our fitness levels up and fatigue the players.

"It is a disappointing result, but we're 20 days into pre-season and what matters is getting them ready for 16 August. I've won every pre-season game in the past and lost the first three or four games in the league, and not won a pre-season game and then not lost the first eight or ten games of the season.

"It doesn't make a lot of difference to me in terms of results. What is important to me is our level of performance, what we are as a team, and our technique levels. That did worry me, because our technique levels were way down on our standard so I was disappointed about that.

"I can understand that we were fatigued with the way we've been working, but not the lack of technique on occasions.

"The players have to realise we didn't compete well enough, first and foremost. Any game of football you play, anywhere in the world, you've got to earn the right to play.

"We're lovely in possession and in terms of trying to keep the ball, but we weren't penetrative enough. When we lost it, the players hardly competed and that was our biggest problem."

While the final result was one neither Big Sam, his players nor the thousands of West Ham fans in the crowd would have been happy with, there was encouragement to take from Zarate's cameo.

The Argentine was lively, neat and tidy in possession and showed quick feet and an eye for goal to net with 20 minutes remaining.

Downing, too, was in good form and only denied a fine equaliser by an even better save from Italiano, who plunged to his right to push the ball around the post.

"It was a lovely goal," agreed Big Sam. "Mauro showed some lovely touches around the final third and he's certainly a type of player we haven't had at the Club.

"In and around the box, Mauro technically looks like he can open up defensive units and he did do that against the Phoenix.

"They were happy to put eight and nine behind the ball once they went 2-0 up and I don't blame them for that because they wanted to win the game, but Mauro showed a nice bit of technique, as did Stewart Downing when he came on."

After using 20 players against the Phoenix, Big Sam is again expected to utilise his squad when the Hammers take on Sydney FC in Wellington on Saturday.

Cheikhou Kouyate suffered a knock to his leg in a heavy first-half challenge, while James Tomkins was taken off late on, and the manager admitted both may miss the Westpac Stadium fixture.

"It's about giving the squad of players as much match-fitness as I can give them. We've got to balance out the amount of time we give them - we started out giving them 45 minutes in the first game and then 55 or so and tonight we gave them 60 minutes.

"We'll reverse that on Saturday so those who played 30 will get 60 and some will get 90 - it depends on whether we have got any knocks or strains.

"It was a physical game and, by experience, some of the knocks they got will mean they cannot play in Saturday's game, so some will have to play 90 minutes.

"We'll have to wait until Friday to see where we are."

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