LEAGUE CUP

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City rolls, but West Ham shows grit

Ravel Morrison served as a bright spot for the Hammers.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It isn’t often that in a game that was, for stretches, quite even, one team ends up losing 9-0.

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But believe it or not, West Ham United was on even footing with Manchester City in their League Cup semifinal second leg on Tuesday. The problem was that they had dropped the first leg by a whopping 6-0 score. But with a few players finally returned from that overcrowded physio’s office, they were better equipped to avoid getting, well, hammered a second time.

Yet hammered they were. It took less than three minutes for City to go ahead, add an away goal to their standing six-goal aggregate lead and remove any doubt about this series. Marcos Lopes, just 18 years old, got a lot of room to swing in a cross from the left and swirled it at Alvaro Negredo, who was shockingly unmarked and ran onto it. The header made it his fourth goal over two games against West Ham.

With any hope of a place at Wembley Stadium for the final on March 2 now truly gone, a funny thing happened. The Hammers, who have looked tentative, insecure and wobbly all season began playing freely. Liberated of any notions that they were still in this, they started attacking, moving the ball about and creating chances. Down 7-0 on aggregate, they finally began committing some acts of soccer.

A minute or two after Negredo’s 1-0, Kevin Nolan scissor-kicked in a cross – alas, he was offside by a yard or so. Then, Mohamed Diame whacked a pair of shots just wide, and Andy Carroll headed over on a clever run. For much of the first half, West Ham had the most of the ball and the better of the chances.

That didn’t stop the dazzling Lopes, a fourth-string attacking midfielder of whom we’ve seen little since his arrival from Benfica a few years ago, from putting the Citizens up 2-0 and collecting his second assist though. Clearly keen to impress during such a rare chance afforded to a youngster at City, the Portuguese danced through the center of the field on a break in the 24th minute before feeding Sergio Aguero. The little Argentine rounded a few defenders and goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen as if they were trees and whipped his finish into the net. 2-0. Or 8-0, in the grand scheme of things.

That meant that coming out of the locker room after half-time, the Hammers would somehow have to summon nine unanswered goals to advance and surround all those dark clouds hovering over them with a silver lining.

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It didn’t help any that Carroll had to come off with a knock, having already missed the entire first half of the season with a heel injury, and that Joe Cole soon followed him to the side. West Ham’s luck has been rotten on the injury score. But still, they kept playing. For a team trying to drag themselves out of the Premier League relegation tussle, their willingness to keep playing, rather than capitulate and galvanize what little forces they had left for another day, was admirable. (Incredibly, Diame had to be stretchered off with an injury in the final minute of the game as well.)

But then there was Negredo, who is enjoying the sort of form that makes missing chances a great deal harder than converting them. He was hit on the run by Aguero in the 59th minute, held a man off with each of his shoulders as he barreled into the box and dinked his finish by Jaaskelainen from an acute angle to make it 3-0.

If there was any consolation in that dispiriting 9-0 final aggregate score line, it was perhaps the continued wizardry of Ravel Morrison, who had earned a penalty on at least one occasion. But then again, that perhaps only reinforced the interest of the clubs that have been lusting after the 20-year-old’s considerable skill-set.

They could well be without him before the month is out. And if Carroll, Cole and Diame are seriously injured, a dreary situation could yet grow worse for the Hammers. Which isn’t at all a fair outcome to a game wherein they strived far more actively than a team in their position could reasonably be expected to do.
 

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