Hammers Take Advantage to Malta
By Tom Dowsett
Friday 17 Jul 2015 14:56:00
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West Ham United will take a 1-0 lead to Malta next Thursday as they will hope to secure a place in the next round of Europa League qualifying.

Slaven Bilic named a strong side for his first match in charge at Upton Park, as the likes of Adrian, Winston Reid, Aaron Cresswell, captain Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble were all included. There was a shock inclusion in the starting line-up, as striker Modibo Maiga partnered Mauro Zarate upfront. Until now, Maiga had been frozen out for most of his time at the club since previous manager Sam Allardyce signed him in 2012.

The Hammers were obvious favourites to win the encounter before the action commenced and were on top in the opening stages but just couldn't make the breakthrough.

The home side went close on 11 minutes, when a good team move involving Joey O'Brien and Matt Jarvis set up Morgan Amalfitano but the Frenchman shot over.

The majority inside the ground thought their team should have been awarded a penalty just six minutes later, when Noble sent the ball into the area and Nolan was brought down. Referee Markus Hameter disagreed with the home faithful and gave nothing.

The Hammers' fans took a clear dislike to Hameter and were disappointed again on 19 minutes, as he failed to see Maiga go down in the area and then penalise O'Brien, as he tried to win the ball back.

Seconds later, the hosts forced Birkirkara goalkeeper Justin Haber into action when he had to be alert to prevent Maiga from scoring, following a great cross from Zarate.

Haber made an even better save from Maiga just seconds later, as he latched on to a pass from Nolan, after the skipper had sent Noble's freekick across goal but the keeper tipped the striker's shot over.

West Ham then fashioned the best chance of the game on 27 minutes, as Maiga, who made a great start to the game saw his effort come back off the post.

Three minutes before half-time the home side had two chances to take the lead. Firstly, when Nolan's acrobatic effort went just wide. Shortly after, Amalfitano had his shot saved by Haber.

The half-time whistle blew and the Hammers were finding it difficult to break the resistance of their opponents.

Bilic's side continued to pile on the pressure at the start of the second-half and on 54 minutes, Jarvis forced a routine save out of Haber.

The visitors weren't far away from taking the lead just four minutes later, when Liliu sent his shot flying across goal, Adrian looked worried but luckily it went wide.

It took Bilic until the 59th minute to make his first change, as he swapped Amalfitano with summer signing Martin Samuelsen and ten minutes later, the manager changed personnel again as Elliot Lee came on to replace Maiga.

O'Brien seemed to be having trouble with his hamstring on 77 minutes but was able to continue soon after.

Lee almost made an instant impact, as he was through on goal two minutes later. Haber saw the danger though and was quickly off his line.

The Hammers made their final change of the evening seconds later, as Diego Poyet replaced the skipper.

Just as the game looked to be heading for a goalless draw, the home side finally made the breakthrough, as Haber mis-jugded Zarate's corner and James Tomkins was on hand to poke the ball past the stranded keeper.

The game then went into five minutes of added time but one goal was enough to see the Irons through.

Should the Hammers avoid defeat in the second-leg, they will then face either Inverness CT of Scotland, or FC Astra of Romania in the third qualifying round. The first-leg will be played in East London on 30 July with the return fixture a week later.

Following reports on Wednesday evening that Stewart Downing was having a medical at former club Middlesbrough, it was confirmed by talksport after the game that the midfielder had completed a £5m move back to Teeside and signed a four-year deal.

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