Hammers lose again at Villa Park

A stirring, solid second-half performance could not prevent West Ham United from sliding to a third, successive Premier League defeat, at Villa Park.

On a grey day in Birmingham, Craig Gardner's blistering, albeit deflected, free-kick, midway through the first half proved enough to give Aston Villa victory.

But Alan Curbishley will go back to Upton Park knowing that on another day, his hard-working Hammers could have returned to London with a share of the points and he will be equally concerned by the worrying late knee ligament injury sustained by Dean Ashton that could force him to withdraw from the England squad for next week's Euro 2008 qualifiers.

Following his eleventh-placed side's 1-0 defeat by Arsenal last weekend, Curbishley had made three changes as Danny Gabbidon and Matthew Etherington replaced Anton Ferdinand (hamstring) and Scott Parker (knee), while Hayden Mullins came in for substitute Mark Noble.

Despite seeing his side sensationally surrender a three-goal lead on a mad Monday evening at White Hart Lane, Martin O'Neill kept an unchanged side after Villa, in ninth-spot, had drawn 4-4 against Tottenham Hotspur, five days earlier.

While that meant Nigel Reo-Coker lined up against his old team-mates, there was no place in the hosts' 16-man squad for ex-Upton Park striker, Marlon Harewood. There was a lively atmosphere from the off among a 40,842 crowd watching the Premier League's only 3pm Saturday start.

With just eight minutes on the clock, Henri Camara was shown a yellow card for diverting Etherington's teasing left-wing cross into the net with his hand. At the other end, Villa's attempts to break the deadlock via more legal means saw the alert Robert Green make smart saves in front of the watching Steve McClaren, to claim Luke Moore's tricky, low 20-yarder and Gabby Agbonlahor's point-blank back-header.

Midway through the half, though, the Hammers' defences were finally breached when Agbonlahor tumbled under Gabbidon's challenge on the edge of the area and Gardner rubbed salt into the wound, when he sent the resulting 18-yard free-kick sizzling through the West Ham wall and in-off the luckless Welsh defender's right shin.

In reply, Freddie Ljungberg almost conjured up an instant response but the Swede's angled diving header was clutched at the near post by Scott Carson, who had been called into the England squad.

Having received his own long-awaited international call-up, Ashton was equally looking to impress McClaren ahead of next week's Euro 2008 qualifiers but, apart from a looping header and a hopeful long-ranger, he enjoyed little joy in a first-half that saw Zat Knight deservedly booked for an over-zealous 35th-minute tackle on the Hammers' marksman.

Ashton also saw his limping strike-partner, Camara, replaced by former Villa loanee Carlton Cole and, as the half drew to a close, Carson was then forced to race from his line to bravely pluck the ball off the toes of the breaking Etherington to preserve his side's lead at the break.

Ten minutes after the restart, Reo-Coker was cautioned for one tackle too many on Lee Bowyer, before Olof Mellberg followed him into the book for tripping Etherington.

Although, the pace of Ashley Young and Agbonlahor was a constant threat, West Ham certainly looked more menacing in the second half as Cole twice got himself into good positions, only to see his eight-yarder saved by Carson, who then breathed a huge sigh of relief as the substitute's downward header bounced agonisingly beyond the far post.

Ljungberg also unleashed a dipping 20-yarder that narrowly cleared the Villa crossbar and, with West Ham looking like they could still salvage something from the match, Curbs introduced both Noble and Luis Boa Morte at the expense of Mullins and Etherington for the final ten minutes, but in the end time simply ran out for the Hammers, who also had to endure the agony of Ashton's late medial ligament injury.