Ipswich Town 1:0 West Ham

West Ham will have to produce a winning result at Upton Park on Tuesday night after going 1-0 down at Ipswich Town in the first leg of the Division One Play-Off semi-final.


Darren Bent's 57th minute goal gave Joe Royle's men a slender lead in a closely-fought encounter at Portman Road, but Hammers will be confident of turning things around in the return tie.


Boss Alan Pardew will know that his players are capable of a far better performance and, with a 35,000 crowd behind them at the Boleyn Ground, will hopefully be inspired to pull off the two-goal victory that secures a visit to the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, May 29.


After going four games unbeaten at the end of the season, Hammers were full of momentum going into today's game, while Ipswich had endured a sticky spell in recent weeks and narrowly scraped into the play-offs. However, these matches have a history of tearing up the form guide and this clash between two talented footballing sides was no exception.


Despite a terrific defensive record of late, the Hammers boss elected to make a change to his back-line, as Tomas Repka returned at right-back after a four-game absence, while Hayden Mullins switched to left-back in place of Anton Ferdinand, who had to be content with a place on the substitutes' bench.


There was also a change in attack, as Don Hutchison made way for David Connolly's return up front and Marlon Harewood dropped back on the right side of midfield, while last week's goalscoring hero at Wigan, Brian Deane, hoped for another super-sub appearance.


Despite the fact that they were facing a two-legged affair, though, neither side seemed intent on displaying too much caution in the early stages. A first half full of chances at either end began with Matthew Etherington surging at the heart of the Ipswich defence and feeding Connolly, whose shot was deflected into the arms of goalkeeper Kelvin Davis.


From then on, both teams produced an end-to-end, free-flowing display in the searing midday heat that they somehow managed to keep up for the entire first 45 minutes. Early on, the hosts were restricted to long-range efforts, as Jim Magilton and Jermain Wright both saw shots blocked by the brave defending of Christian Dailly and Andy Melville on the edge of the box.


On 12 minutes, Harewood was played in by Zamora but shot into the side-netting, while a counter-attack 11 minutes later saw Connolly feed Zamora, who this time ignored the chance to release Etherington and struck a low shot just inches wide of the post.


After half an hour, the 28,435 Portman Road crowd was left wondering how the match was still goalless, as four glorious chances went begging - two at each end of the field. First Bent skipped past Bywater on the left and cut the ball back for Westlake, whose goalbound shot was superbly cleared off the line by Melville, then, just seconds later, Etherington skipped down the left and crossed the ball for Connolly, whose lay-off found Zamora, but the striker dragged his shot wide of the target.


A minute later, Hammers were again let off the hook, as a free-kick from the left found Naylor unmarked in the six-yard box but the Ipswich forward somehow flicked his effort wide of the target, much to the relief of a helpless Bywater.


Then it was Zamora's turn again to go close, as he latched on to Etherington's cut-back but scuffed his shot straight into the arms of Davis from 10 yards out.


Wright's blistering volley into the side-netting was the final incident in an action-packed first half that ended with both sets of supporters applauding their teams off the pitch.


With the temperature continuing to rise, though, it seemed very unlikely that either side would be able to keep up a similar tempo, and so it proved as the second half developed into a much more cagey and tactical affair.


Knowing that the onus was on them to build a lead at home, Ipswich continued to push men forward after the interval, but it was the visitors who had the first chance to open the scoring. After McGreal's superb defensive header denied Zamora, Carrick's resulting corner was met by Harewood, who rose unchallenged to power a header inches over the bar.


It was therefore something of a surprise when the hosts did take the lead just a few minutes later. The energetic Wright was allowed too much time and space just outside the penalty area and his neat pass released Naylor, whose blistering shot crashed back off the bar but took a ricochet off the unfortunate Repka and fell perfectly for Bent, who gratefully nodded home from just a few yards out.


Perhaps sensibly, Hammers resisted the temptation to throw caution to the wind in search of an equaliser. With Ipswich at their most buoyant and dangerous after the goal, Pardew's order to keep it calm and disciplined could well turn out to be a wise decision in the long run.


Marshalled by the solid Dailly and Melville, the back four held firm for the remainder of the match and were protected well by the midfield, with Steve Lomas - recovered from a stomach upset 24 hours earlier - using his experience to full effect.


Pardew introduced Jobi McAnuff in place of Zamora and then sent Brian Deane on for Harewood in an attempt to add some fresh legs to his tiring team, and McAnuff almost popped up with an equaliser in the closing stages.


After Carrick's curling free-kick had been palmed out by Davis, Lomas' long throw was flicked on to the former Wimbledon youngster, whose fierce left-foot volley was blocked by a defender just six yards out.


A sense of disappointment was of course apparent among the visitors as they trudged off at the final whistle, but that frustration soon gave way to determination as thoughts turned to Tuesday night's second leg.


Having seen 4,400 travelling fans provide tremendous support this afternoon, Pardew's men will know that an even greater support will be behind them in three days time. As long as they can match the Upton Park faithful for effort, heart and passion, then Hammers have every chance of booking that momentous day out in Cardiff.