A first-half double from Austrian attacker Marko Arnautovic proved pivotal in David Moyes’ West Ham United claiming three points of the highest importance in their bid to stay in the Premier League against relegation rivals Mark Hughes’ Southampton on Saturday afternoon.
Inter Milan loanee Joao Mario opened the scoring at the London Stadium with Arnautovic putting the Hammers two to the good before the 20-minute mark and all but wrapping up the contest with his second in added-time during the first-half.
The Saints huffed and puffed as they looked for a way back into the game in the second period and despite having superior possession, never really looked like they were going to salvage anything in their new manager’s first league match in charge of the club.
The detrimental win was enough for the East Londoners to climb three places in the Top-Flight table to 14th and a full five points above the relegation zone, while the costly defeat for the team from the South Coast saw them remain 18thn, two points adrift of safety in Crystal Palace directly above.
From the start in as chilly East London, Irons boss Moyes decided on two changes to his starting Xl from the league loss to Burnley at the London Stadium three weeks ago to the day, which was marred by crowd protests.
The duo of veteran defender James Collins and midfield playmaker and Argentine International Manuel Lanzini both failed late fitness tests and were replaced by young Irish International Declan Rice and Arthur Masuaku, who was returning from a six-game ban for spitting on Wigan Athletic’s Nick Powell in the Emirates FA Cup.
Meanwhile, Hughes’ visitors last played against that very Wigan side in that very competition and also made two alterations to his starting Xl from the team that made the semi-finals of football’s oldest competition.
Both of them came in attack with Charlie Austin returning from a hamstring tear to take the place of new signing Guido Carrillo, and Nathan Redmond came back in for Sofiane Boufal, Austin had netted two of the last three times he faced West Ham.
Right from the very off in Stratford, the home side dictated the pace of the encounter and controlled the affair, creating the best of the early openings before seizing the advantage on 13 minutes.
Arnautovic and Masuaku were among those to threaten early though a major injury to Michail Antonio disrupted the rhythm in the opening exchanges, he left the field in clear distress nursing his hamstring to be replaced by the returning Edimilson Fernandes.
When the hosts did finally force their way through just before 15 minutes, nobody could deny that it was coming, and it took a moment of quality on the counter-attack from Moyes’ boys to find it.
Captain Mark Noble win the ball back in midfield to stop a Southampton attack, quickly unleashing Senegal skipper Cheikhou Kouyate, who embarked on a vintage run down the right.
He finished it off by picking out Mario, the Portuguese International, on the edge of the area and having already spurned a half-opening, set himself and smashed a ruthless half-volley into the roof of the net, giving Alex McCarthy no chance.
It was the best possible start for the East Londoners and the game’s first goal was always going to be vital, spurred on by a rocking London Stadium, the second wasn’t too far away either.
Arnautovic, fresh from netting three for Austria during the International break, burst through the Saints defence and found himself clean through on McCarthy, steering his effort wide to the shock of East London.
However, the 28-year-old was keen to make up for his miss in an instance and the defence he was facing were incapable of keeping close tabs on him from that point on.
On 18, Mario found himself with space on the right after Kouyate’s clever play, picking out Arnautovic in the penalty area with a pinpoint cross in between defenders.
The Austrian’s initial header was well stopped by the keeper, but it fell straight back to his feet and he reacted quickest to finish low under the shot-stopper and send the former Olympic Stadium into delirium.
The remainder of the first-half struggled to live up to the drama of the first 18 minutes as the visiting defence tightened up and the intensity of the home side’s press dropped off a tad.
The Premier League’s 18th-placed team managed to create a few half-openings on the break, the likes of Redmond and Dusan Tadic were their creative sparks, though it wasn’t enough of to break down a resolute home back-five.
If the visitors hadn’t made the most of a little spell of possession mid-way through the 45, the home side took full advantage of one last clear-cut opportunity in added-time before the break.
After Mario had put an audacious free-kick shot comfortably over the crossbar from range, Arnautovic was gifted a chance that he just couldn’t miss to claim his classy double.
And it came from a third counter-attack with Masuaku, having been part of a walkout from the Democratic Republic of Congo national team in the last week, made headway down the left.
Hammers supporters had bemoaned the pace man’s final ball before his six-match suspension and he surely proved he has improved it, picking out Arnautovic with an accurate delivery.
However, Masuaku’s efforts were somewhat overshadowed by the top-scorer’s end product as he took it first-time, unleashing a quick-fire volley past McCarthy and into the back of the net.
The supporters that hadn’t gone in early for half-time rejoiced in his finish and for the second time in the game, Arnautovic offered a little more than a steely glance at his former manager Hughes in celebration.
Arnautovic getting his ninth PL strike of the season and his fifth in the space of three matches for club and country meant that the Irons went in at half-time three to the good, what a difference three weeks makes.
What Hughes had to say to his players at the break brought out a reaction from the visiting stars who, on reflection had the better of the play in the second period, but it was far too little and far too late.
Although they struggled to find an opening, the introduction of Shane Long at the break gave them an extra dimension, allowing Austin a few promising sights at goal.
Italy defender Angelo Ogbonna denied the Englishman when his best chance arose, an effort from inside the box that his tackle deflected over, while the hosts also found chances hard to come by.
Arnautovic, on the hat-trick hunt provided two of their three shots of note on goal in the second-half, both were from range and both barely threatened McCarthy’s goal, the first curling wide and the second rolling into his arms.
Moyers’ boys were more than happy to sit on their lead, but left centre-back Aaron Cresswell did give the home fans with one last smidgen of entertainment in the final knockings.
Skipper Noble teed him up on the edge of the penalty box from a wide free-kick with the former England International powering a volley that clipped the top of the bar and flew into the Bobby Moore Stand.
With that, Jon Moss soon blew his final whistle on an afternoon of contrasts, the Claret & Blue Army going home with smiles on their faces and the travelling supporters making the long journey home dejected.
Hughes now has an extremely difficult task at hand to keep the South Coasters in the division for another season, whereas, Moyes’ men look to have come out the other end of a dark month intact and are now well-placed to beat the drop for now.
The Hammers will take their new-found confidence to Stamford Bridge next Sunday afternoon live on Sky Sports to face off with Antonio Conte’s fifth-placed Chelsea in an intriguing clash.
For Southampton, Arsenal will be the next opponents in a must-win clash on the same day at the St Mary’s Stadium, the Saints are now running out of games and are at serious risk of being cut adrift in the bottom three.