A goal on the 90th minute by James Tomkins gave West Ham United a slender lead over Birkirkara after the first leg of the UEFA Europa League at the Boleyn Ground on Thursday.
Although they were constantly under pressure by their more illustrious opponents, the Stripes defended well and had goalkeeper Justin Haber in excellent form to neutralise attempts at goal. However as the game seemed heading for a draw, the winners of the Premier League Fair Play table for 2014/15 notched the winner.
Hammers coach Slaven Bilic made no less than seven changes from the team which defeated Lusitans 1-0 last week. Giovanni Tedesco, on the other hand, had Justin Haber starting in goal, leaving the rest of the team which defeated Ulisses FC 3-1 in the second leg of the first qualifying round unchanged.
During the first half the Hammers totally dominated but could not find a way through. Excellent defending and goalkeeper Justin Haber’s skills managed to keep the West Ham strikers at bay.
As expected, West Ham held the initiative right from the start, going close on the 21st minute with a fine Modibo Maiga header which was turned into a corner in style by Justin Haber.
The Malian striker was prominent once again six minutes later with a long-distance shot which was deflected by Haber onto the bar.
For the second half, Tedesco replaced Edin Murga – a striker – with another midfielder – Edmond Agius but after a few minutes, he had to replace Paul Fenech with Kurt Zammit.
Ten minutes in the second half, following a cross by Zarate, the ball was cleared into safety but the ball reached Jarvis who effort from the left was neutralised by the Birkirkara goalkeeper. On the other side of the pitch, in a swift counter-attack, Liliu went close on 59 minutes.
West Ham notched the winner on the 90th when off a Mauro Zarate corner, James Tomkins was at the right place at the right time to knock home from close range.
The second leg is scheduled for next Thursday at the National Stadium, kick-off at 20:45.
WEST HAM Adrian, Winston Reid, Aaron Xresswell, Kevin Nolan (79′ Diego Poyet), James Tomkins, Matt Jarvis, Mauro Zarate, Mark Noble, Joey O’Brien, Modibo Maiga (69′ Elliot Lee), Morgan Amalfitano (59′ Martin Samuelsen).
B’KARA Justin Haber, Mauricio Mazzetti, Paul Fenech (49′ Kurt Zammit), Fabrizio Miccoli, Nikola Vukanac, Edin Murga (46′ Edmond Agius), Liliu (65′ Vito Plut), Joseph Zerafa, Zach Muscat, Rowen Muscat, Ryan Camenzuli.
Referee: Markus Hameter (AUT)
Assistant referees: Roland Braunschmidt, Andreas Heidenreich (AUT)
Fourth official: Julian Weinberger (AUT)
Yellow Cards: Z. Muscat, O’Brien, Cresswell, Reid