Ilan earns precious victory

West Ham United 1-0 Sunderland

Ilan may have stolen the headlines with a second vital goal in a week for the Hammers but a precious three points on Saturday were earned by a true team display.

The Brazilian forward earned his first start at the Boleyn Ground after his late equaliser at Everton last week and rewarded Gianfranco Zola's faith with a priceless finish just after half-time. It was no more than the Hammers deserved and, with Burnley winning at Hull City, they took a massive leap towards top-flight safety.

Zola had gone into the contest hoping that his team would compensate for the absence of Scott Parker. He need not have worried. In Mark Noble and Valon Behrami, who was back in the side for Parker, especially, he had midfielders willing to cover every blade of grass and who frequently put in lung-bursting runs to stretch the Sunderland side.

The duo's industry was the high point of the opening quarter-of-an-hour with neither goalkeeper threatened by a shot of note. That changed on 16 minutes when the match finally sparked into life, Behrami played a terrific one-two with Ilan before testing Craig Gordon with a low drive that the Scotland keeper only just palmed aside.

That got the home crowd going and there was a brief buzz when Gordon crashed a clearance against Cole's back and the ball momentarily looked like it might loop goalwards. Soon Cole was bursting through the middle, having superbly robbed Lee Cattermole, only to be blocked off and then Jonathan Spector picked out Ilan with a raking pass, only for an offside flag to be raised.

Sunderland were harrying well and there was no sign of taking it easy despite being virtually assured of their Barclays Premier League status for another season. Cattermole underlined their commitment with a crunching tackle on Behrami that left the Swiss international in a heap and saw Mike Jones produce a yellow card.

Green's first real moment of action came a minute later when he had to save a low shot from Bent before Spector had his name taken for a late challenge. The referee was called into action again on 33 minutes, Gordon earning a yellow card for handling outside his area and the game had turned into a stop-start affair.

Noble was responsible for picking up the momentum. A crunching tackle on Cattermole electrified the crowd and within seconds Faubert and Stanislas were involved on the right wing before Cole worked his way into the area. He fed the ball through to Ilan but only a last-ditch block by the returning Anton Ferdinand, who had received a good reception, saved Sunderland.

That man Noble was again involved in the dying seconds of the half, linking up with Ilan with two one-twos but again Sunderland were able to see out the danger. The Hammers were on top but had no goal to show for their efforts. They did not have to wait too long into the second half, though, to raise the roof.

On 51 minutes, Ilan won a free-kick. Da Costa took it, launching the ball forward into the penalty area for Cole to flick on and there was Ilan around the back to poke the ball beyond Gordon with his studs. It was a huge goal, as was underlined by the mass celebrations. There was still work to be done, though, a fact well known to the 34,685 gathered.

The alarm bells were ringing as the hour came and went with Cattermole allowed time and space to fizz a shot just wide of Green's right-hand upright. Noble was still going though, combining with Stanislas. but the final ball just eluded Cole. Sunderland made their first change on 63 minutes replacing David Meyler with Kenwyne Jones.

It nearly paid instant dividends, Jones found a perfect pass that split Matthew Upson and Manuel da Costa and played in Bent in acres of space 15 yards out. Just as the crowd held their breath, the 22-goal striker slipped at the vital moment and the ball was hacked away.

Both sides made further changes after that, Steed Malbranque off for Bolo Zenden before Stanislas departed for the fit-again Guille Franco. Sunderland were given a chance to cause havoc due to indecision between Behrami and Noble leading to a foul on Kieran Richardson. Jordan Henderson took the free-kick and Green did well to save the curling effort from 18 yards.

West Ham were given a similar opportunity at the other end on 79 minutes, Fraizer Campbell clipping the surging Spector's heels. Noble took it but his effort was straight into Gordon's hands. The free-kicks were coming thick and fast, this time after a high boot from Faubert at the other end but Cole cleared from Henderson.

The temperature was rising with Behrami and Henderson both getting a talking-to after a bit of pushing and shiving. Campbell then earned a yellow for a foul on Ilan. Cards were coming quicker than chances, but that suited Zola's men down to the ground. It was a nervy finish though and Sunderland were not in the mood for giving up.

Sunderland's last change saw Benjani arrive as a fourth striker for Paulo Da Silva as Steve Bruce went for broke.

Ilan went off to a rapturous response as the game moved into four added minutes with Fabio Daprela on for extra defensive steel. Franco thought he had clinched the win with a late goal but was adjudged to have handled. Sunderland raced down the other end and but for a defiant Behrami block, Zenden could have equalised with a fierce shot. The Hammers had held on, and will go to Liverpool a week on Monday with spirits high.