x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ilunga rescues Hammers

Herita Ilunga saved West Ham just when it looked like Middlesbrough had defied the form book to grab a quarter-final place.

West Ham's David Di Michele, left, tackles Didier Digard.
West Ham's David Di Michele, left, tackles Didier Digard.

LONDON // Herita Ilunga saved West Ham just when it looked like Middlesbrough had defied the form book to grab a quarter-final place. The Congolese full-back headed home a Savio free-kick from the left in the 82nd minute to earn the Hammers a replay after they had spent most of the match on the front foot. There appeared to be only one possible winner of this all-Premier League tie. One team on a dismal run of form without a league victory in 13 games against a side having lost just once in nine, to the champions Manchester United, and with an England striker in scorching form.

But things didn't work out as expected. West Ham's Carlton Cole hobbled off before half-time and his side lost their shooting boots. Gareth Southgate's Boro were certainly the brighter early on, with Stewart Downing wasting a fine chance as Didier Digard's fine run gave him a clear sight of goal from 18 yards but he fired inches wide. West Ham were starting to settle and the visitors were indebted to goalkeeper Brad Jones twice in quick succession as he pushed aside vicious strikes from both Mark Noble and centre-back James Collins. And Gianfranco Zola's West Ham were swiftly made to pay for not taking those opportunities as Downing gave the visitors the lead after 23 minutes.

Gary O'Neil was the architect, swinging in a vicious cross that both Collins and Matthew Upson missed, allowing Downing to steal in and head home unchallenged for his first goal of the season. Cole was forced off by injury, replaced by Diego Tristan, and it swiftly became apparent how much they missed the England striker's killer instinct as Noble saw his deflected effort well saved and Jack Collison fired the rebound well over.

Middlesbrough were surprisingly comfortable despite West Ham's second-half dominance - before O'Neil gave away a late free-kick and Ilunga made him pay. sports@thenational.ae