UPTON PARK—A fresh season represents fresh hope for every club in the Premier League, but the feeling around Upton Park on Saturday at 5 p.m. was one of disappointment; one of a chance truly missed.
Any early-season sluggishness shadowing West Ham United vs. Tottenham Hotspur evaporated in the tense atmosphere of a local London derby—a match in which both sides battled, vied and jostled for dominance throughout.
Spurs' pretty spells of possession were interlaced with periods of aggression and energy from the Hammers; the match toed and froed in the first half-hour and neither side achieved a true measure of control.
But then a Chris Foy decision changed the flow in its entirety: A harsh call to award a penalty and send Kyle Naughton off tore Tottenham's game plan to shreds. It felt as though the game's tide was turning in the Hammers' favour after an even 30 minutes, but the usually sure-footed Mark Noble swept the spot-kick wide.
It was the first in a series of missed chances, regrettable errors and unfortunate blunders that cost West Ham a win.
With Spurs down to 10, the Hammers soon built a near-unbearable period of pressure, and Hugo Lloris had to be at his acrobatic best to deny the home side over and over.
Quick switch balls from Noble allowed Stewart Downing to get free down the right and run at Danny Rose. This soon became a feature of the attack as West Ham's 11 men held the width and spread Spurs' banks of four to its limit.
The back line bent all game long but never broke. West Ham slung in cross after cross, found Carlton Cole in the box and took pot-shots from distance—all to no avail.
If there was to be a winner it would be scored by West Ham, surely, but a James Collins red card—borne of two yellows correctly awarded—changed the landscape again.
Two teams in 4-4-1 formations left their strikers up top, isolated, and went at it hammer and tongs in the central zones. Kevin Nolan and Co. outmuscled Nabil Bentaleb and Christian Eriksen with ease, keeping the flow of the match in West Ham's favour but with a renewed sense of openness at the back.
Sam Allardyce threw on Mohamed Diame and Enner Valencia to provide pace, power and strong running; Mauricio Pochettino responded, spotting the gaps opening up and asking Andros Townsend to wreak havoc in space.
Four added minutes were signalled and the home crowd bayed for another attack; the fans smelt blood and the players agreed. More were thrust forward in search of the elusive winner, but Spurs caught them on the counter with a sucker-punch goal from Eric Dier.
"We out-played and out-created Spurs, who are supposed to finish in the top four," Allardyce lamented after the game. "But we didn't finish them off."
"Attacking football? We had 20 attempts at goal, just not enough quality. We need to find someone who has that quality—a quality better than what we already have."
When asked if this would bring the pressure crashing back down upon his shoulders, the former Bolton Wanderers manager shrugged and appeared defiant. "Sacked? If you do it after one game, you might as well have done it last season."
It's a classic Allardyce front; a show of steely solidarity. Deep down, though, he knows he's missed an incredible opportunity to launch a new impression of himself in east London.
Had the Nolan penalty gone in, had Lloris not stopped everything coming his way and had any of Downing's stellar crosses found their mark we'd be looking at a different story. A different opening impression.
Managers play down the significance of an opening day result with regularity, but the marker it sets for the season ahead is ominous.
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