Kuqi strike cancels West Ham dream start
Oh Dear. Having dominated the first half with elegant free-flowing play - incisive use of space and intelligent movement of players - West Ham descended into desperation and irritation.
The manager Alan Pardew argued that referee Uriah Rennie was pivotal in this, but when a place in the Premiership is at stake, responsi bility has to be taken. 'He's not refereeing Wednesday,' said Pardew, thinking ahead to the return leg of this play-off semi-final. 'But we were aggrieved. His consistency was frustrating. Me and Joe [Royle] were frustrated with him all afternoon.'
Yet it had all been so different pre-match with a Dean Martin sing-alike, a man with a trumpet and a swirl of blue and white balloons courtesy of the visiting Ipswich support. Upton Park had copious festive cheer ahead of this repeat of last year's semi-final.
For 45 minutes the home fans' cup overflowed as they went two goals ahead, courtesy of the attractive football. Enter Rennie. Having booked right-back Tomas Repka, the referee began garnering healthy boos. These increased when he decreed Ipswich should advance the free-kick 10 yards following West Ham dissent.
Right or wrong, and it seemed a touch fussy, you had to admire his bravery in front of the Bobby Moore stand, especially as the delay gave the crowd chance to vent their spleen. When Tommy Miller stroked the ball against James Walker's left post for it to rebound against the keeper's back and in, the goal had an inevitability about it. When Rennie blew for the break, he had to be escorted off the pitch.
It was a strange end to a half that United had dominated. Their two early goals, scored within 13 minutes, are ones Ipswich defender Jason de Vos will attempt to forget.
When Anton Ferdinand cleaned up calmly under pressure, to hint that it is not just brother Rio who benefits from elegant insouciance, Walker's clearance was headed on by De Vos into Matthew Etherington's path down the left. He then knifed into the box, looked up and delivered the first of two killer balls that ended in a goal for West Ham.
This time it was Marlon Harewood who benefited. Minutes later it was his strike partner Bobby Zamora, who collected when Etherington's near identical run and cross took a deflection off De Vos. Ipswich were two down and had just a ragged Shefki Kuqi shot to show for their work.
At this juncture, so superior were West Ham, it was hard to see how Ipswich had ended the league season 12 points ahead. A clue was offered when their skipper Jim Magilton rollicked his players, and then full-back Drissa Diallo, skinned for both goals by Etherington, hardly challenged for a header. The visitors lacked fight and belief.
That, though, changed. 'The goal just before half-time was a Hammer blow if you'll pardon the pun,' Royle opined, though he had his own criticisms of Rennie. 'I'm a fan of his but not today. Let's leave it at that.'
After the break, Ipswich began to sense that West Ham's occasional flatness at the back could be exposed. Yet when they tried to move in behind United, as they did mid-way through the half when Kuqi collected, his effort was typical of his team's and now the game's lack of finesse.
But when that same player went on to equalise that hardly mattered. Half-time substitute Darren Currie floated a diagonal ball over for Darren Bent. His shot was blocked and then looped up. Ferdinand and Walker challenged each other and the ball dropped for the Finnish striker to offer thanks and Ipswich had completed a rather unlikely comeback.
So will Ipswich have the advantage on Wednesday?
'Yes. But the pressure's on them,' said Pardew.
'Only slightly,' reckoned Royle. 'But it'll be exciting.'
With no away-goals rule and extra time, should it be needed, played in full, penalties may well decide the first team to reach Cardiff.
Jamie Jackson (Guardian)