Champions just too good

West Ham United's Barclays Premier Reserve League South campaign began with a narrow 2-1 loss at reigning champions Aston Villa on Tuesday.

A youthful Hammers lineup played a full part in a keenly-contested game at Villa Park, but were unable to resist the home side, who have won the title in each of the last two seasons and also beat North champions Sunderland in the inter-division play-off in May.

Highly-rated striker Nathan Delfouneso fired Villa into a fourth-minute lead with a smart finish as Villa enjoyed much the better of things before half-time.

West Ham's sole chance of the opening 45 minutes fell to Zavon Hines, but the Jamaican was unable to replicate his finish in last Tuesday's Carling Cup victory over Millwall, shooting too close to veteran goalkeeper Andy Marshall.

The Hammers, who lost midfielder Andrea Zola to a facial injury midway through the opening 45 minutes, came out strongly after the break, and were level five minutes into the second period.

Matt Fry was fouled by Chris Herd as he broke forward down the left, Anthony Edgar swung over a vicious, curling free-kick and the ball looped past Marshall via the head of Villa's Republic of Ireland youth international striker James Collins.

For a while, it appeared Alex Dyer's side could go on to claim all three points, but the Villans had other ideas, securing the victory themselves thanks to a sumptuous volley from substitute Gary Gardner 18 minutes from full-time.

Gardner, the younger brother of Villa defender Craig, was fouled midway inside the Hammers half by Josh Payne. Eric Lichaj lifted the resulting free-kick into the box, where the ball fell to Gardner, who controlled on his chest before lifting an inch-perfect volley past Peter Kurucz.

West Ham, for whom Frank Nouble enjoyed a decent night, tried gamely to force their way back into the match, but it was the hosts who finished by far the stronger of the two teams.

Kurucz did superbly to deny Collins twice inside the space of a few seconds, while Delfouneso and substitute Adam McGurk both shot narrowly off-target when well-placed.

While Dyer will be slightly disappointed by the result, the performances of the likes of Nouble, left-back Jordan Brown, 18, and 16-year-old midfielder Eoin Wearen, in particular, were cause for optimism.

West Ham United: Kurucz, 'Gala, Brown, Fry, Eyjolfsson, Zola (Wearen 24), Lee (Montano 79), Payne, Edgar, Nouble, Hines
Subs unused: Street, Barrett, Kearns