Marvel Marlon Secures Vital Win

Goals from David Connolly and Marlon Harewood rounded off an impressive performance as Hammers secured a vital three points at Stoke City.


On a bright and sunny day at the Britannia Stadium, their strikes either side of the break made it a second successive 2-0 victory for Alan Pardew's men and kept the play-off hopes bubbling along nicely.


And while the result may have been of paramount importance, Hammers' excellent all-round display was just as pleasing, given the need to be hitting top form as we enter the closing weeks of the season and a possible three-game extension.


The Hammers boss had made two changes to the side that saw off Coventry City at Upton Park last week, as Matthew Etherington and Michael Carrick - both recovered from the troublesome groin injuries that have kept them out in recent weeks - returned at the expense of Kevin Horlock and Adam Nowland.


That meant a switch to the favoured 4-4-2 formation, with Harewood dropping back to the right side of midfield, and it was Hammers who made the brighter start to proceedings, creating a decent opening inside the first minute.


Harewood's quick pass released Bobby Zamora on the right and the striker cut inside two defenders to set up a shooting chance but saw his goalbound effort blocked by a defender.


Despite the visitors' impressive start, though, it was Stoke who came closest to opening the scoring early on, when a looping header from striker Gifton Noel Williams in the 10th minute was superbly tipped over the bar by Stephen Bywater.


The game then settled down into a fairly even affair, with neither side providing much in the way of attacking inspiration, and it seemed likely that the first half would end goalless.


However, just six minutes before the break, Hammers pounced to open the scoring. Some intricate build-up play saw the ball find it's way out wide to Hayden Mullins, who flicked a pass into the feet of Zamora, positioned eight yards out with his back to goal. As two defenders challenged the striker, the ball squirmed out to Connolly, who threaded a shot past goalkeeper Cutler and into the net for his 10th league goal of the season.


Seconds later, the lead was almost doubled, when Zamora turned past a defender on the edge of the penalty area and fired a fierce right-foot shot just inches wide of the target, but Hammers still went into the interval in full control and, just as it had done a week ago against Coventry, the vital first goal provided a huge lift in confidence.


Despite an early scare in the opening minutes of the second half, when Stoke midfielder Kris Commons broke free on the left and fired into the side-netting, Hammers never really looked in danger of letting their lead slip and added a killer second in the 58th minute.


Just moments earlier, Connolly had fed Etherington on the left, only for the winger's low centre to travel across the face of goal and out for a goal-kick, but this time the Irish international's pass found his team-mate in more space, and Etherington's lofted effort was deflected into the path of Harewood, who nodded home from just a few yards out.


The strike made it 23 league goals this season for the former Nottingham Forest hit-man, and it was almost 24 a few minutes later, when he dispossessed a defender on the edge of the area, but Cutler was quick off his line to thwart the big striker.


The final half an hour saw Hammers take complete control of matters, keeping possession well in midfield and holding firm in defence to prevent any late scares. Carrick and Harewood both came close with long-range efforts in the closing stages, while Etherington and Connolly were withdrawn late on as Pardew handed cameo appearances to Chris Cohen and Don Hutchison.


The visitors' terrific travelling support gave their heroes a rousing ovation as they left the field at the final whistle, and there was further good news when it was revealed that play-off rivals Sunderland, Ipswich and Wigan had all dropped points.


Victory in their final home game of the season, against Watford next Saturday, would mean that Hammers should only need a point from their last day trip to Wigan on May 9. On this showing, though, Pardew will be hoping that his troops can end the campaign with a winning flourish that would see us enter the play-offs in top form.