James Tomkins’ scrappy goal in the 90th minute saved West Ham’s blushes with a 1-0 win over Birkirkara in the Europa League second qualifying round first leg clash at Upton Park.
With manager Slaven Bilic in the Boleyn Ground dugout for the first time since his summer appointment, the Irons were expected to make short work of the Maltese Cup winners, having seen off FC Lusitans of Andorra 4-0 on aggregate in the first round.
However, despite naming a strong starting XI – which included the likes of captain Kevin Nolan, goalkeeper Adrian, defenders Winston Reid and Tomkins, with Morgan Amalfitano, Mauro Zarate and Modibo Maiga in attack – the Irons were left frustrated as the visitors dug in.
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However, just when it looked like the tie would end goalless, Tomkins bundled the ball into the net following a corner, to give the Barclays Premier League side the slenderest of leads to protect in next Thursday’s away leg.
As expected, it was not long before West Ham created openings, as first Maiga headed over and then Amalfitano curled the ball high into the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand from 12 yards out.
On 20 minutes, Birkirkara goalkeeper Justin Haber produced a brilliant one-handed save to tip over a point-blank header from Maiga following a free-kick into the penalty area. Mali forward Maiga continued to torment the visitors’ defence, as his low, angled 20-yard shot was touched onto the far post by Haber.
It remained one-way traffic as Zarate’s effort was saved before Nolan hooked the ball just wide back through a crowded six-yard box. The Irons were again positive at the start of the second half.
Matthew Jarvis cut in from the left, and his angled drive was smothered by the keeper. On 58 minutes, Birkirkara crafted a rare break when Ellenton Liliu scampered clear down the right and cut the ball back across the face of goal, just wide of the far post.
West Ham made a change to freshen up the attack, Amalfitano replaced by Martin Samuelsen, the Norway youth striker who was at Manchester City’s academy. Birkirkara, though, continued to defend deep as the tie headed into the final 20 minutes, with the home fans growing ever more restless.
On 79 minutes, Nolan was forced off with what looked like a shoulder injury, replaced by Diego Poyet. Just when time looked to be running out, the breakthrough finally came in the last minute when Haber flapped at a left-wing corner swept in by Zarate, and Tomkins bundled the ball into the net.