Battling point a delight for West Ham but a burden for O'Neill

It took some resilient defending for Gianfranco Zola's visitors and move out of the bottom three while the hosts chances for a Champions League spot take a hit.

BIRMINGHAM // In the precarious state West Ham are in, on and off the pitch, a battling point at Villa Park could be absolutely vital in their hopes of staying in the Premier League come the end of the season. The meaning of this goalless stalemate to both sides was evident in the reactions of each set of fans. While the home side, chasing a place in next season's Champions League, were jeered at the final whistle, a tiny pocket of Hammers fans celebrated an unexpected point.

In truth, while the hosts created the greater volume of chances, neither team deserved to win. West Ham could have taken the lead as early as the sixth minute when Frank Nouble, making his first Premier League start, fired over the crossbar after a fine run, but the closest either side came to breaking the deadlock came just after half-time, when the Villa midfielder James Milner clipped the outside of a post with a fierce drive.

It took some resilient defending for Gianfranco Zola's visitors to hold on for a point that takes them out of the bottom three, while the result delivered a frustrating blow to Aston Villa's chances of reaching the Champions League this season as they remain in sixth place. Zola admitted last week that the takeover speculation surrounding the club is affecting his players, but they responded in perfect fashion, producing an uncharacteristically impressive defensive performance.

Robert Green, the Hammers goalkeeper, produced wonderful first half saves to keep out first Ashley Young and then Gabriel Agbonlahor, and in the dying moments he again bravely denied Agbonlahor by diving at the striker's feet when he was through on goal. Zola said: "I think it was a brilliant performance. It's a massive result not only because it takes us out of the bottom three but because it's not easy to get a point here and that will give the players a big boost."

At the other end of the table, the race for the Champions League places is turning into a grind and looks set to go to the wire. After good results on Saturday for Villa, with Manchester City losing and Tottenham and Liverpool only managing draws, a home game against a struggling side was a fantastic opportunity for them to gain ground in the race for fourth place. Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, revealed his frustration that despite dominating possession and creating 16 corners, his players were unable to score for the third league game in a row.

"When you drop points at home it has to be considered as a missed opportunity," he said. Man of the match: Robert Green (West Ham) @Email:sports@thenational.ae

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