Aston Villa moved above English champions Manchester United and into third place in the Premier League after an own goal by Australia international Lucas Neill gave them a 1-0 win at West Ham on Saturday. A tight and entertaining contest at Upton Park was settled 12 minutes from time when West Ham captain Neill diverted a ball from James Milner into his own net.
West Ham remained fourth from bottom although the Londoners will drop into the relegation places if fellow strugglers Manchester City do not lose away to basement club West Bromwich Albion on Sunday. This result was cruel on the home side, who had squandered a number of chances themselves, with Carlton Cole the main culprit.
Villa boss Martin O'Neill, who admitted his side had been slightly fortunate to win, insisted they will still have to improve to stay in the top four. "We created quite a number of chances on the break in the first half but the game was really open and could have gone either way," he said. "We got a bit lucky with the goal at a time when West Ham were pressing us. I'm delighted to be third. At the moment it is nice and it would be lovely to just hang in there. Points on the board are very important. But I think we've got a lot of work to do. Brad Friedel had a magnificent game for us. He has earned his money. We have a distance to go."
West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola named an unchanged starting line-up following last week's 1-1 draw at the Italian's former club, Chelsea. Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, reverted to a more familiar line-up after seeing a shadow side lose 3-1 at Hamburg in midweek in a UEFA Cup game where nothing but pride had been at stake.
West Ham made a tentative start but were boosted by Craig Bellamy's direct style and the Wales striker forced goalkeeper Brad Friedel into the first of a number of saves in the 13th minute. A free-kick move almost unhinged the Villa defence but Neill could only produce a tame finish in space at the back post. The former U.S. international was required once more to deny Bellamy again after Herita Ilunga, West Ham's left-back, had picked him out on the left of the box.
The visitors showed why they are riding so high in the table with dangerous moments of their own but Steve Sidwell could not hit the target from a promising position. Sidwell was set up in similar circumstances soon after but could only fire wide and there was a real let-off for the home side when Scott Parker sent a back-pass straight to Ashley Young. He successfully rounded goalkeeper Robert Green but hit the outside of a post.
Ashley Young then fired a free-kick narrowly wide as Green remained rooted to the spot. Villa caught the home side out on the counter attack after Bellamy had thumped a free-kick into the wall but Green was able to deny first Milner with his legs and then Gareth Barry by palming away a well-struck follow-up effort.
The second half began with West Ham swapping Parker for Hayden Mullins before Matthew Upson and then Neill came close for the Hammers with headers from set-pieces. Zola made a second change in the 57th minute when Lee Bowyer replaced midfielder Valon Behrami and Carlos Cuellar limped off to be replaced by former Hammer Nigel Reo-Coker, who was booed by the home fans.
Cole should have put West Ham ahead on the hour when Neill picked him out at the back post but he headed the ball over from three yards. He was then denied, by Friedel's legs, from close range. Calum Davenport headed over and Cole was again frustrated by Friedel before the deadlock was fbroken when Milner saw his cross take a huge deflection off Neill and loop over Green. It was a bitter blow for the home side but the Villa fans behind the goal celebrated wildly even if Milner did not. West Ham sent on striker Diego Tristan but Friedel pulled off another save, this time from Davenport.