A valiant away display by West Ham United saw them earn a precious point at high-fliers Manchester City on Sunday evening but it could have so easily been another victory.
The recalled Carlton Cole had opened the scoring with a spectacular eighth-minute overhead kick but the lead lasted just eight minutes until Darius Vassell struck an equaliser from close range. Despite that disappointment, the away side dominated and, with Freddie Ljungberg majestic, particularly bossed the second half only to find City goalkeeper Joe Hart in imperious form.
Dean Ashton and Matthew Etherington missed out with the former picking up a sore back in last Wednesday's FA Cup reverse at City while the latter suffered a knee knock in training. City began with the same eleven that finished the midweek 1-0 win, with Rolando Bianchi starting in place of the injured Nery Castillo.
The Hammers began in lively fashion with Ljungberg again showing up well on the right-hand side with Luis Boa Morte on the left in a 4-3-3 formation featuring Cole as the main striker. The duo took the game to the hosts in the opening stages and despite Alan Curbishley's side failing to score in the three previous meetings between the teams, a goal looked very possible.
It duly came when a poor touch in defence by Richard Dunne allowed Mark Noble to slip the ball out to Ljungberg and his low cross into the box found Cole. With his back to goal, the No12 lifted the ball into the air before acrobatically hooking in.
City, as befitted a team who could go fifth with victory, came back strong and drew level in contentious fashion. Vassell looked to be in an offside position when Martin Petrov played in a right-wing cross having seen his initial corner cleared. On its way into the six-yard box, the ball struck Matthew Upson and George McCartney and fell into the path of Vassell to turn and score.
The Hammers felt hard done by but Ljungberg kept probing and nearly burst through five minutes later. City then showed their own menace on the break, Bianchi racing away on a counterattack before shooting wildly over the bar. Both teams were passing the ball well but an over-hit through-ball just eluded Cole before Stephen Ireland had the chance to shoot low at Green, who saved well.
It was a half that saw little to separate the teams. There were cautions for Neill and Dunne respectively while as the half-time whistle approached first Micah Richards and then Anton Ferdinand showed great skill to set their teams away going forward. The latter break finished with Boa Morte just failing to control a defence-splitting pass before Noble fed Cole only for Richards to intercept at the last moment.
West Ham United were electric after the interval. First Ljungberg and Cole drove into the box and were only stopped by a referee's whistle for a foul before Noble had a chance to fire in a shot that cleared the home goal. Boa Morte then entered the book for a challenge on Vassell. Curbishley's side were firmly on top though and Ljungberg won a corner in the 57th minute. From that Noble found Cole and his header flashed agonisingly across goal.
Just before the hour, outstanding play from Boa Morte, Noble and Ljungberg finished with a fizzing drive from the impressive Mullins, but Hart did well to dive and save. Cole then flashed at the resulting corner but it was deflected to safety. Boa Morte then won a corner in the 64th minute that led to Mullins again trying his luck to no avail.
Elano missed spectacularly with a long-range free-kick before Bianchi had a lofted effort that Green comfortably claimed. City had made two changes - introducing Gelson and Geovanni for Vassell and Ireland - before Julien Faubert entered the fray for Boa Morte in the 71st minute. Within a minute, Faubert had poked the ball into the net but the referee blew for a foul by Lee Bowyer on Dunne. Faubert then burst through, fed Cole who in turn played in Noble but Hart was again equal to it.
Bowyer was booked in the closing stages for retaliation before Noble then had his name taken for dissent. The Hammers finished as they started - on top - but the winning goal just eluded them. It was not for the want of trying, with the tireless Ljungberg twice going close with late efforts. Cole nearly had the last word with a powerful header but again Hart stood firm.