West Ham United earned a well-earned point at Middlesbrough on Saturday but came very close to taking all three after an electric contest at the Riverside.
The tireless Hayden Mullins marked his 150th league start for the club in fine style when opened the scoring in the 21st minute with a volley that clipped Freddie Sears before going in. It looked like that would be enough to end a run of four defeats until Mido crashed in a late free-kick in the closing stages. Both sides could then have snatched the victory but had to be content with a point apiece.
Gianfranco Zola made four changes to the team that lost at Manchester United in midweek by recalling Lucas Neill after illness at right-back. The three players who came on as substitutes at Old Trafford had all impressed their manager enough to earn starts. Jack Collison joined Julien Faubert in midfield, while Luis Boa Morte and Freddie Sears started up front. Lee Bowyer, David Di Michele and Matthew Etherington made way.
With Carlton Cole suspended it was clear Zola planned to unlock the home defence by exploiting the pace of Craig Bellamy and Sears. Sears played just behind the Wales captain in a 4-4-1-1 formation. The No33, still only 18, was inches away from rewarding his manager's faith nine minutes in. An explosion of pace saw him race clear of the halfway line with one defender to beat. He duly shimmied past him before dragging a right-footed shot agonisingly wide.
The teams had to endure torrid conditions in the driving rain but Faubert clearly did not have any water in his eyes as he sprinted freely into the Middlesbrough area. He rolled the ball across the six-yard line and, just as Bellamy seemed certain to score, Chris Riggott slid in to clear the danger.
Referee Andre Marriner showed the first card to David Wheater in the 17th minute for a late tackle on Boa Morte. The Portuguese was unaffected by the challenge and four minutes later wriggled free of his marker inside the area and cut it back to Mullins. He miscued his first effort, but will be pleased he did as the ball sat up perfectly for a volley and he duly obliged with a thunderous right-footed effort that went in via Sears' head and the crossbar.
The goal should have been a good omen as the Hammers had won all four games where they had taken the lead. James Collins came close to a quick second when he smashed a free-kick from all of 30 yards inches wide the post. Riggot was booked for a handball on 33 minutes. Neill followed Riggott into the book six minutes before half-time after catching former United loanee Jeremie Aliadiere late.
Mullins attempted to double his tally for the season as tried to curl one from 25 yards, which went wide of the upright. Robert Green had to be alert in stoppage time to keep his side in front going into the break as he just got a fingertip to divert a Stewart Downing cross away from danger.
Boro manager Gareth Southgate changed his side by bringing on Justin Hoyte for David Wheater. The pace of Bellamy was causing all kinds of problems as he soon showed when he collected a through ball he had no right to make. His squared ball was only just cut out as the Hammers threatened once more.
The home fans were growing restless as the visitors came forward again. This time they had Ross Turnball to thank as he saved well from Collison. Just before the hour, Boro bought on Julio Arca for Didier Digard. Four minutes later Collison entered the book for a tackle from behind. Matthew Upson then had to be on his toes to block an Aliadiere shot. Southgate made his final change when Mido replaced Alfonso Alves with 23 minutes to go.
If the weather was chilly on Teesside then the action on the pitch certainly was not as Green palmed away an O'Neil drive from 20 yards. The home support within the 25,164 crowd found their voice as their side looked more threatening than they had all afternoon. Zola made his first change with just over a quarter of an hour to go - replacing the hard-working Sears with Etherington.
Four mintes later the home side thought they had levelled as Hoyte netted with a diving header, only to be flagged for offside. Boa Morte was booked with ten minutes to go as the hosts kept pushing. Three minutes later, Mido was fouled by Collins on the edge of the area. The Egypt striker took the set-piece himself and drilled it through the wall and beyond the despairing Green.
Zola immediately introduced Lee Bowyer for Boa Morte as he looked to regain the lead but the second was not forthcoming. Mido went close again while there was also time for Bellamy and Collison to just miss. Although so close to victory, the first draw of the season for West Ham United will have given Zola some positives to think about before two successive home matches to come.